Many situations could make someone’s workplace unpleasant.
Rude co-workers, unappreciative bosses, lack of perks or privileges, and micromanaging superiors can make employees feel uncomfortable.
However, those examples do not necessarily create a hostile work environment.
The level of behavior that unlawfully creates a hostile work environment must be much more serious and pervasive than that.
Today we will talk about what a hostile work environment is, we’ll provide some examples of a hostile work environment, and we’ll discuss what you can do about it if you find that you work in a hostile environment.
What Is a Hostile Work Environment?
A hostile work environment is one that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive because of harassment in the workplace.
It must be so unpleasant that it impacts an employee’s ability to work.
Harassment in the workplace is discrimination based on a number of factors, including race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, age, genetics, or health history.
What Are Signs of a Hostile Work Environment?
Not every annoyance or grievance will make someone’s workplace a “hostile work environment” in the legal sense.
Generally, an isolated incident will not be enough unless it is extremely serious, like an assault or battery on your person. Legally, a hostile work environment must meet the following requirements:
- Someone’s behavior is discriminatory against a protected class under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination;
- The conduct is pervasive or long-lasting;
- The employer knows about the behavior but failed to adequately address the issue; and
- The person’s conduct affects the victim’s ability to work.
It is easier to prove unlawful harassment from a supervisor toward a subordinate; however, anybody can be a harasser in the workplace. Victims can also be anyone who is negatively affected, even if they are not the target of the harassment.
Hostile Work Environment Examples
Isolated rude comments or teasing might be unprofessional or even violate HR policies, but it probably will not rise to the level of harassment.
Here are some examples of unlawful conduct showing signs of a hostile work environment.
Examples of unwanted sexual behavior include the following:
- Telling sexually explicit jokes;
- Sending pictures of nude people;
- Watching pornography in the workplace where there’s a chance someone will see;
- Repeatedly asking the victim out on dates even though they already said no;
- Unwanted comments about physical features (different from the occasional compliment);
- Unwelcome touching; and
- Vulgar remarks about gender or sexual orientation.
Any pervasive and consistent sexual behavior that makes someone uncomfortable because it is unwanted could be harassment.
Racist Slurs or Other Insensitive Terms
If your boss refers to you or a co-worker by a racially derogatory term, even if it’s played off as a joke—they are likely contributing to a hostile workplace environment.
Offensive jokes about protected classes like race, gender, sex, etc., could be discrimination under the LAD. Again, this is particularly true if the jokes or comments are repeated and persistent.
If you are over 40 years of age and were refused a job due to that fact, you could have a case for discrimination against the employer. But once you have a job, age discrimination can take many forms.
Perhaps your superiors consistently ignore you when considering candidates for promotions, or perhaps they are pressuring you to retire. These would be examples of a hostile work environment.
Although not illegal, aggressiveness toward other employees or subordinates could be a warning sign of a hostile workplace. Aggression and anger can present themselves either verbally or nonverbally, but any serious or disturbing anger expressed by a co-worker or supervisor can create a hostile work environment.
Passive-aggressive behavior or targeting someone and making them embarrassed or uncomfortable are also red flags.
If your management team encourages an extreme level of competition that fosters an environment where co-workers are trying to harm one another or inhibit each other’s success—this could indicate a hostile work environment.
Furthermore, if your supervisors engage in activities designed to bully or shame certain individuals, this could also contribute to a toxic workplace.
How to Deal with a Hostile Work Environment
If your employer is not already aware of the issue, it is up to the victim to ask for help. If you are experiencing discrimination at work or a hostile work environment, you must at least follow these steps to preserve your right to file a legal claim later.
Make it Clear that the Behavior Is Unwanted
If your supervisor or colleague is creating a hostile work environment, the first step is to put the person on notice that their behavior is unwelcome.
You do not necessarily need to confront the person, especially if you are intimidated or if it could jeopardize your job to do so. However, you must not encourage the behavior.
Report to Your Employer
You must put your employer on notice of the person’s conduct. If the person is your supervisor or manager, go to their supervisor or to your company’s human resources department.
Your employer must have an opportunity to investigate and address the problem. Your company may already have policies in place about what employees should do in these instances, which you should try to follow.
You should create a record of the issues and the steps taken to resolve the problem. Write down details every time an incident occurs. Write down dates, times, and witnesses. Confirm your report to your employer or human resources in an email or other written document.
You might be worried that your supervisor will retaliate against you if you file your claim or alert human resources. But please be aware that retaliation is illegal. You have the right to know and exercise your workplace rights without interference from your employer, including freedom from retaliation.
When to File a Workplace Harassment Claim
Victims of workplace discrimination have a short window to file claims. There are several options for filing such claims in New Jersey.
Complainants filing employment discrimination claims under federal law must do so within 180 days.
You would first file a Charge of Employment Discrimination which requests the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to take remedial action. You must take this step before you can file a federal lawsuit for employment discrimination.
Discrimination victims have two years to file a claim under the Law Against Discrimination in New Jersey Superior Court. A judge or jury decides superior court claims after trial. Parties can also choose to settle outside of court.
Possible damages could include monetary compensation, damages for pain and humiliation, attorney’s fees, punitive damages, or job reinstatement.
Division on Civil Rights
Victims may also file charges with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, which investigates LAD violations. People filing claims to the DCR must do so within 180 days of the issue. The DCR will investigate claims, and the Director is the final decision-maker.
Possible remedies include all of the damages allowed in the Superior Court. The DCR could also require employers to institute policy changes or anti-harassment training. The guilty party might also have to pay a penalty to the state.
O’Connor, Parsons, Lane & Noble Can Help
O’Connor, Parsons Lane & Noble are experienced attorneys in the areas of sexual harassment claims and employment law. We have handled a large variety of employment claims throughout the state, including workplace discrimination and hostile work environment claims. Some of our recent successes in employment law claims include a $22,600,000 verdict for an employee suffering sexual orientation discrimination and $2,200,000 for a wrongful termination case. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.