What is it that makes a work environment hostile? A one-time off-color remark from a coworker that leaves you somewhat uncomfortable might not qualify. A severe one-time incident might. Additionally, if you experience off-color or offensive comments over and over again, to the point where it hinders your job performance or makes your work impossible to do, you might be the victim of a hostile work environment.

It is important to contact an experienced employment attorney for a consultation on the matter. Reading the below information will help to familiarize you on the legal remedies and definition of a hostile work environment.

Harassment or discrimination based on certain classes protected by New Jersey law is illegal, and both can create a hostile work environment.

These protected classes include the following:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Color
  • National Origin
  • Age
  • Ancestry
  • Nationality
  • Marital or domestic partnership or civil union status
  • Sex
  • Gender identity or expression
  • Mental or physical disability (including pregnancy)
  • AIDS or HIV status
  • Military service
  • Affectional or sexual orientation
  • Atypical cellular or blood trait
  • Genetic information

What Constitutes Severe or Pervasive Conduct?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission provides this guideline: the behavior you are experiencing must “make a reasonable person of the employee’s gender [or other protected class] believe that the conditions of employment have been altered and the working environment has become hostile or abusive.”

It is important to note the use of the terms “severe OR pervasive.” While a slight annoyance or a petty remark may not be enough to constitute illegality, consistent behavior that makes you uncomfortable or unable to perform your duties could make your work environment hostile. Alternatively, a one-time severe offense could, too, render you unable to perform your job in that environment.

Sexual harassment could be in the form of a quid pro quo, in which a supervisor promises or conditions the victim’s job or job advancement on the victim accepting their advances. Sexual harassment could also be of the type to create a hostile work environment, “when an employee is subjected to sexual, abusive, or offensive conduct because of his or her gender,” according to New Jersey law. Hostile work environment sexual harassment could come from a supervisor, a coworker, or even a client.

It is also important to note that offensive remarks or behavior based on gender do not have to be sexual in nature for it to be illegal—for example, if your boss tells you repeatedly that you cannot do your job well because you are a woman, then that could create a hostile work environment.

Moreover, the harassment you experience does not have to be physical in nature to create “a hostile or abusive work environment” under New Jersey law.

The circumstances that bring about a hostile work environment can vary, and be quite surprising, too. Thus, it is
hard to state a blanket rule for what can create a hostile work environment.

Recent Examples of a Hostile Work Environment

One recent case in Belleville Township, NJ, demonstrates this. A woman who worked for the town was paid $235,000 and received lifetime health benefits in the settlement of a hostile work environment lawsuit.

The woman, Cheryl Jeannette, alleged in the suit that one of her coworkers “squirted breast milk at her” directly from the coworker’s breast, and that her coworkers would repeatedly call her a slut. Jeannette claimed the environment was “sexually hostile.”

As seen in Jeannette’s case, the harassment does not even have to be verbal to contribute to a hostile work environment. The act of squirting breast milk was discriminatory in nature on the basis of gender. This case also shows that it need not be a sexual advance to constitute gender discrimination.

A recent pending lawsuit in Waldwick, NJ, alleges a pervasively hostile work environment due to the discriminatory conduct of an administrator and the mayor of the town. Three former employees of the borough say that the administrator made discriminatory comments, some of which were sexual in nature and discriminatory against one worker who was pregnant. They say that these comments made the workplace uncomfortable for them, and prompted them to leave their jobs.

It is illegal to discriminate on the basis of pregnancy in New Jersey. Offensive comments repeatedly made about your pregnancy in your place of work could subject you to a hostile work environment. For example, the Waldwick case, a worker was asked, while pregnant, if she took birth control pills.

Is Your Employer Liable For a Hostile Work Environment?

You may be wondering if your employer is liable for a hostile work environment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says that your employer is not liable only if it can PROVE two things:

“1) It reasonably tried to prevent and promptly correct the harassing behavior; and 2) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer.”

The burden of proof is on the employer, not you, to show that they tried to help. Thus, if you have made your discomfort known to your employer, and your employer has not come up with any way to make the situation better, you could be entitled to damages. You should attempt to use whatever opportunities your employer gives you to remedy the situation while considering your options for legal recourse. If those remedies are insufficient, or the situation is so severe that in-house remedies aren’t an option, seek legal counsel.