No one should have to put up with harassment at work. While employees can certainly feel harassed by an irate boss or supervisor who tends to blow their top, this isn’t necessarily illegal. When employees are singled out and treated differently because of a protected characteristic like their sex, race, nationality, religion, or disability, however, this can amount to illegal harassment. In New Jersey, this type of workplace harassment is prohibited by the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) as well as federal laws including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
What kinds of harassment does the law recognize?
There are two main types of illegal workplace harassment: quid pro quo and hostile work environment.
Quid Pro Quo
Quid pro quo (literally, “something for something”) applies specifically to sexual harassment. It occurs when an employer or supervisor demands, requests, or implies a demand or request that an employee or applicant engage in sexual behavior to gain employment benefits such as hiring, promotion, or pay increase, or to prevent an adverse employment action like termination, demotion, or reduced work hours.
Hostile Work Environment
Harassment can also occur due to a hostile work environment. Employers have a duty to protect their employees from intimidating or abusive behavior related to legally protected characteristics. The NJLAD prohibits harassment based on
- Sex, including gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, pregnancy, or breastfeeding
- Race, ethnicity, ancestry, or national origin
- Religion or absence of religion
- Disability or perceived disability
- Marital or domestic partnership status
- Military service
An employer can be held directly liable for harassment by a supervisor or manager. If they are or should be aware of the harassment, they can also be held liable for the behavior of co-workers, customers, or clients.
What behaviors are considered harassment?
Harassment that creates a hostile work environment can include a wide range of behaviors that target an employee’s protected characteristics. Examples include
- Verbal abuse such as obscene, demeaning, or threatening comments
- Sexual advances or requests
- Physical violence other unwanted touching
- Visual harassment, such as circulating pornographic images or bigoted memes
Minor, isolated incidents are not considered sufficient to create a hostile work environment. To be illegal, the harassment must be severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person with the employee’s protected characteristic would believe it alters their working conditions such as to create an environment that is hostile to them.
Can I sue my employer for workplace harassment?
All New Jersey employers are legally obligated to conduct prompt, thorough, and fair investigations into employee claims of unlawful harassment. They must also take meaningful action to stop the harassing behavior and prevent it from happening in the future. If your employer knows or should know of harassing behavior at your workplace and has failed to take steps to remedy the situation, you may have a legal claim.
Filing a Claim Under the NJLAD
To file suit under the NJLAD, you must bring the claim within two years of the last date the harassing behavior occurred. If successful, you may be awarded
- Back pay with interest (if the harassment resulted in lost wages)
- Injunctive relief (an order directing your employer take certain actions)
- Compensatory damages, which are intended to compensate for financial loss as well as physical or emotional pain and suffering
- A court order directing your employer and harasser to bear the entirety of your attorney’s fees and expenses
- Punitive damages, which are intended to punish employers for particularly egregious conduct
Punitive damages are not commonly awarded, but courts sometimes impose them when a company’s upper management actively participates in or is willfully indifferent to the harassing behavior.
Consult with an Experienced Employment Attorney
Workplace harassment cases can be complex, overwhelming, and emotionally draining. Working with an experienced employment attorney is critical to ensuring your case is prepared properly and giving you the best chance of substantial recovery. The Mark Law Firm has earned a reputation as a fierce advocate for employees that has won millions of dollars for our clients in discrimination and harassment lawsuits. To learn more how we can help protect your rights, see our case studies.