While the environment at your workplace might be toxic, that does not necessarily mean that it is a hostile work environment entitling you to pursue compensation from your employer. Instead, a hostile work environment is a specific legal term that describes when discriminatory actions taken against certain employees based on their protected characteristics are severe or pervasive enough to interfere with the employees’ ability to perform their jobs.
A hostile work environment can be created when an employee is subjected to an abusive, intimidating, or offensive atmosphere because of his or her race, religion, national origin, color, disability, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, pregnancy, age, or another protected characteristic. Discriminating against employees based on their protected characteristics is prohibited by both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). Here is some information about hostile work environments from the attorneys at Swartz Swidler.
The NJLAD and Hostile Work Environments
The NJLAD prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on their protected characteristics and also includes a prohibition against harassment of employees because of their membership in protected groups. Employers must take steps to prevent workplace discrimination and harassment and promptly investigate and address complaints of harassment and discrimination. When employers fail to stop unlawfully discriminatory harassment, they might create hostile work environments.
Examples of What Could Constitute a Hostile Work Environment
Single incidents of harassment will normally not be enough to create a hostile work environment. However, a single incident can be enough to do so when it is severe. In most cases, a hostile work environment will be created when there are ongoing incidents of harassment that are so pervasive that it interferes with the victim’s ability to perform his or her job. Some examples might include the following:
- Ongoing sexual harassment of an employee by a supervisor or coworker
- Displays of racist posters and racist jokes
- Unwanted touching
- Abusive language based on an employee’s protected characteristics
- Obscene jokes and pornographic displays
What to Do If You Are Being Harassed
If you are being harassed based on your protected characteristics at work, you should follow your company’s policy for reporting complaints. If your employer fails to investigate or address the situation, you might have a viable claim for hostile work environment harassment. However, you will have the burden of proving your claim to hold your employer liable.
Your attorney can help you understand the legal merits of your claim and can help you file it together with supporting documents. Once you file your claim, the state will conduct an investigation. The New Jersey Department of Civil Rights will determine whether the conduct was based on your protected characteristic. It will also determine whether it was severe or pervasive enough to affect the work environment to the extent that the environment was abusive, intimidating, or hostile.
You will need to present evidence showing the following things about the harassment:
- It wouldn’t have happened if not for your protected characteristic.
- It was severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person in the same situation and with the same protected characteristic would believe that
- the work environment was abusive or hostile.
While there isn’t a set number of incidents that will make a work environment hostile, the court will consider whether it was pervasive or severe enough to believe that the environment was altered to the degree that it became abusive and hostile.
In some cases, single incidents can be serious enough to create a hostile work environment, including the use of racial slurs or a sexual assault or proposition. You are not required to wait until you are the victim of repeated acts of racial epithets or sexual harassment to pursue a claim.
If you prove that the harassment occurred, the court will then consider whether the harasser was serving as the employer’s agent and whether the employer knew about the harassment. Finally, the court will decide whether the employer took steps to prevent harassment. These factors are important to help the court determine whether it should hold the employer liable for illegal harassment instead of the individual harassers.
Legal Remedies for Hostile Work Environment Harassment
If you prevail with your hostile work environment claim, you can recover a few different types of damages. Some of the potential remedies in this type of claim include the following:
- Back pay
- Job reinstatement or front pay
- Pain and suffering damages
- Injunctive relief
- Interest on lost wages
- Reasonable attorney’s fees
- Punitive damages
Punitive damages are more difficult to prove because you must show that your work environment was outrageous. In addition to the potential damages, employers might also have to pay a statutory fine of up to $50,000 based on the circumstances involved.
Speak to an Experienced Employment Lawyer
If you have been harassed because of your protected characteristic at work to the extent that you believe a hostile work environment has been created, you should consult an attorney at Swartz Swidler. Our attorneys can help you determine the most appropriate steps to take to remedy the situation. Call us today for a free case evaluation at (856) 685-7420 to learn more about your case.