You hate your boss, your co-workers, and your clients. The turnover rate is at an all-time high, and your office's productivity is dismal, despite mandatory overtime. You've been disciplined repeatedly for minor mistakes and things beyond your control. Do you have a hostile work environment?
Probably not. The term "hostile work environment" doesn't mean the same in an employment law case as it does in ordinary descriptive language. This short article will set out the criteria for what the phrase means under New Jersey law, how to prove a claim involving a hostile work environment, and what types of compensation a successful claimant may recover.
Hostile Work Environment Under NJ Law
New Jersey employers must provide safe working conditions for their employees. This includes more than just ensuring the physical safety of the workplace. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) requires that employers protect workers from behavior that a reasonable person would find intimidating or abusive.
To violate the NJLAD, the intimidating or abusive behavior must be related to or based on a characteristic protected by the statute. These characteristics include:
- National origin
- Sex/gender identity or expression
- Sexual orientation
- Pregnancy and breastfeeding
- Religion (or absence of religion)
- Disability or perceived disability
- Familial/relationship status (including marital status, domestic partnership, or civil union status)
- Military service (both past service and current obligations such as reserve duty, deployments, and emergency assignments)
- Disability or atypical hereditary cellular or blood trait of any individual (or refusal to submit to genetic testing or provide genetic information)
- Age (for everyone over the age of 18)
Harassment or abuse related to a protected characteristic is also illegal under federal statutes like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, The Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and The Americans with Disabilities Act. While the NJLAD applies to nearly all New Jersey employers, Title VII and the ADA only apply to employers that have 15 or more employees, and the ADEA applies to employers with 20 or more employees.
Can I Sue My Employer for My Hostile Work Environment?
A company can be directly liable for the improper conduct of a supervisor or manager towards the workers they supervise. In some situations, an employer might also be liable for harassing conduct between non-supervisory co-workers or from clients.
An employer is obligated under the law to conduct a prompt, thorough, and fair investigation into an employee's claims of unlawful harassment or discrimination – and then to take meaningful action to assure it will not happen again. If your employer knows or should know of the harassing or abusive conduct but has taken no action to respond or prevent it from continuing, you may have a legal claim.
What Is the Legal Standard for a Hostile Work Environment?
To bring a hostile work environment claim under to the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), a claimant must prove:
- The complained-of conduct would not have occurred but for the employee's protected characteristic or membership in one of the law's protected classes.
- The conduct was severe or pervasive enough that it would make a reasonable person in that protected group believe that it altered the conditions of employment, making the working environment abusive.
The exact nature of what kind of conduct creates an “abusive working environment” is unfortunately still not well-defined by statute or case law. As societal expectations change, so does the standard for what constitutes illegal conduct.
New Jersey’s Supreme Court has “acknowledge[d] that the hostile work environment claim is still evolving. Conduct considered normal and non-discriminatory twenty years ago may well be considered discriminatory today.”
The standard that the jury will be instructed to apply is that of a reasonable, similarly situated New Jersey employee as the person making the claim. Would such a person reasonably believe that the complained-of conduct was severe and pervasive enough to make the workplace abusive?
Examples of Hostile Work Environments
Usually, a hostile work environment is characterized by multiple acts of harassment, degradation, or threats, often perpetrated by more than one person. Sometimes, however, a hostile work environment claim can be based on just one extremely severe action. For example, an employee may have such a claim if their manager makes a credible threat to kill them or their family because of their national origin.
An employee can make a successful claim for a hostile work environment even if they are not the target of the abuse or threats. For example, another employee of the same national origin who overheard the manager's death threats may be able to convince a jury that they felt terrorized, even if the target employee did not.
Take Action Against Hostile Work Environments
If you're experiencing a work environment that promotes or allows discrimination, harassment, bullying, or abuse, don't stay quiet. Speaking out on behalf of yourself and your coworkers is the only way to protect your rights and prevent further harm. Taking action helps change the system and promote a safe working environment for everyone.
An experienced employment attorney can help you evaluate how you may be able to take action under state and federal laws. Contact the lawyers at The Mark Law Firm today to make an appointment at any of our convenient locations.
 Lehmann v. Toys R'Us, Inc., 626 A. 2d 445 (NJ 1993).