Workplace incivility has become, essentially, a fact of life. Studies have shown that the vast majority of workers report having experienced incivility as work, many as often as once a week. But at what point does bullying, abuse, and unfairness rise to the level of an illegal “hostile work environment”? The answer may surprise you.
Can you sue your employer for a hostile work environment?
New Jersey law defines a hostile work environment very specifically. Although a work environment where your boss, managers, or coworkers are verbally abusive, demeaning, temperamental, or unpredictable may push employees to the point of mental and physical breakdown, these things aren’t indicative of a hostile work environment under the law.
A hostile work environment refers specifically to a workplace in which an employee or group of employees feel uncomfortable at work because of an offensive, intimidating, abusive, or oppressive atmosphere as a result of a protected characteristic. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) sets out these protected characteristics.
Recognized protected characteristics include race, religion, national origin, gender, gender identity, marital status, pregnancy, perceived or actual sexual orientation, age, military status, veteran status, and disability.
What qualifies as a hostile work environment?
The specificity of the legal definition means that a workplace that is full of angry, backbiting, undermining, horrible supervisors and/or coworkers doesn’t rise to the level of legally actionable unless that behavior is motivated by a protected characteristic. For example:
A tech startup fosters what nearly everyone describes as a “toxic” work environment. More inexperienced engineers are harassed by the managers with phone calls and emails at all hours of the day and night, pressured to work through weekends and holidays, publically belittled in front of their peers and superiors, and routinely dressed down in front of staff and clients. They are pitted against each other in contests to see who can work the most hours in a week, with the losers being forced to perform menial office tasks like cleaning the toilets. While this environment is horrendous, it’s very unlikely this meets the New Jersey requirements of a hostile work environment, since everyone in this class of workers is treated horribly, and inexperience is not a protected characteristic.
In contrast, the following example demonstrates a situation in which a hostile work environment might be a sustainable legal claim.
Among a comparable tech startup’s inexperienced engineers are a group of international workers from India. These workers receive the brunt of the “scut work” and are routinely belittled for their accents, their manner of dress, and their dietary habits (which are related to their religious beliefs). They are forced to work longer hours for less pay than their US-born peers, and their managers have used denigrating racial slurs to describe them. A member of this group who begins to suffer ulcers as a result of the stressful, oppressive nature of the workplace may have a viable hostile work environment claim, since the mistreatment seems to relate to the worker’s race, religion, and/or ethnic origin.
How does NJ law protect me from a hostile work environment?
The NJLAD creates a responsibility for employers to prevent workplace harassment, investigate reports and claims of workplace harassment, and quickly address and stop incidents of harassment based on protected characteristics. If an employer actively harasses its workers (i.e., through its agents or policies), fails to prevent harassment by coworkers, or retaliates against workers who complain of discrimination or harassment, the employer may have created or allowed a hostile work environment. Under New Jersey law, the employer may be liable for damages to the employee.
The NJLAD allows employees who believe they are the victims of a hostile work environment the option of either filing a complaint with the New Jersey Division on Civil rights or filing a lawsuit in New Jersey Superior Court. Each type of action has benefits and drawbacks. You should speak with an experienced employment attorney who is well versed in workplace discrimination claims to determine which course of action is most appropriate to your situation.
Several different types of damages are available under the NJLAD. These include injunctive relief, back pay and interest on lost wages, compensatory damages related to pain and suffering or emotional distress, punitive damages, and reasonable attorney’s fees. Additionally, employers may be held liable for statutory fines of up to $50,000, depending on the specific circumstances of the claim.
If you believe that you have been subjected to a hostile work environment or unfair treatment based on a protected characteristic, call the Mark Law Firm. Our experienced employment discrimination attorneys will fight for your rights, evaluate your chances of bringing a successful claim, and assist you in obtaining the justice you deserve.
To schedule an appointment with one of our attorneys at the Basking Ridge, Oradell, or Newark, New Jersey, law offices of the Mark Law Firm, contact the firm online or call 973-440-2311, 908-626-1001, or 201-787-9406 today.
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