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Hostile Work Environment

Do You Think You’re in a Hostile Work Environment?

Do you feel as though the actions and remarks made by the people you work with or for are offensive? Do they make your work experience uncomfortable? Is this unwelcome conduct affecting your work performance? If so, you may be working in a hostile work environment.

Somewhat confusingly, not all uncomfortable work environments are “hostile work environments” under the law. For example, some people might characterize their workplaces as “hostile” because they report to difficult bosses or work with challenging coworkers. While these kinds of issues certainly might make one’s workplace less than ideal and affect your work performance, they may not necessarily meet the legal definition of “hostile.” Let our knowledgeable lawyers explain more.

What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

While there is no fixed definition of a hostile work environment, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) describes it as a “form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA).”

The New York Hostile Work Environment law does not cover issues such as petty squabbles, low benefits/perks, and other isolated incidents that do not rise to the level of illegality. There are exceptions for extremely serious isolated incidents.

Rather, a “hostile work environment” is a legal term of art describing a form of employment discrimination that manifests in unwelcomed discriminatory conduct based on one’s race, religion, gender, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity, among other protected classes. Essentially, this unwelcome conduct is a form of discriminatory harassment.

What Makes a Work Environment Unlawful?

Examples of unwelcome conduct include:

  • Offensive or insensitive jokes;
  • Insults, slurs, and name-calling;
  • Displaying racist, bigoted, homophobic, or sexually inappropriate pictures;
  • Touching, physical assaults, and threats;
  • Intimidation, ridicule, and mockery;
  • Poor work performance reviews; and
  • Use of sexually suggestive language.

This type of behavior is prohibited under federal, New York State, and New York City law. However, the protections afforded under those laws differ, and conduct that violates one might not violate another. What follows is a general, broad overview of those laws.

Due to inadequate awareness, it is normal for a harassed employee to wonder about the unwelcome conduct they’re experiencing. Given the legal nuances, if you believe that you are experiencing unwelcome conduct, it is important to seek legal counsel as soon as possible. An experienced attorney can educate you about your rights and help you understand what actions you can take and how best to manage your situation.

New York Hostile Work Environment Law

Like the federal laws discussed above, the New York State Human Rights Law (“NYSHRL”) and the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”) broadly prohibit employment discrimination based on protected classes such as:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy status)
  • Age
  • Disability

However, there are significant differences between the two sets of laws.

What’s the Difference Between the NYSHRL and NYCHRL?

First, the NYCHRL is applicable to all New York City employers City with 4 or more employees, and the NYSHRL is applicable to all New York employers regardless of how many people they employ.

Second, the NYCHRL and the NYSHRL have done away with the “severe and pervasive” standard applicable under federal laws. Rather, under the New York laws, hostile work environment claims are actionable if someone is subjected “to inferior terms, conditions or privileges of employment” because of their protected characteristic “regardless of whether [the] harassment would be considered severe or pervasive.”[1]

Consequently, the NYCHRL and NYSHRL afford greater protections to people who have been subjected to discriminatory harassment in the workplace than their federal law counterparts.

If you’re wondering whether your work environment can be considered hostile, our experienced lawyers in NYC can provide answers. Your circumstances need to meet the following legal requirements of a hostile work environment:

  • Your supervisors or coworkers exhibit discriminatory behavior against you due to your religion, race, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, nationality, or any other categories protected by the EEOC.
  • A reasonable person would find the work environment abusive.
  • Your employer was aware of the unwelcome conduct and the constant violation of your rights but chose not to intercede.
  • The derogatory conduct of your boss and/or colleagues has become a regular occurrence and a long-lasting issue.
  • Your employer has failed to investigate and address the problem.
  • Your work performance has been severely impacted due to the workplace environment.

Struggling with Unwelcome Conduct? Call Bantle & Levy LLP.

While rude bosses and obnoxious coworkers make the workplace environment unpleasant and affect your work performance, these behaviors do not fall under the legal description of a hostile workplace. It is important to understand what a hostile work environment is to be able to do something about it.

The first step is to approach the relevant authorities at your workplace and report your situation. If this doesn’t go as planned or if your situation does not change, you’ll have to take the legal route. A seasoned NYC lawyer can help you stop the discrimination and hostility, and obtain financial compensation.

If you meet any of the above-mentioned legal requirements, you’re probably facing a hostile work environment. Don’t hesitate to contact us at Bantle & Levy LLP. We can discuss your options with the patience, compassion, and experience you deserve. Call us today.

[1] N.Y. Exec. L. § 296(1)(h).

Federal Law

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), which applies to employers with 15 or more employees, prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, and sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy status). The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (“ADEA”) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”), which apply to employers with 20 or more employees, prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of age and disability, respectively.

Under Title VII, the ADEA, and the ADA, discriminatory harassment based on membership in a protected class can give rise to a hostile work environment claim where it is “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment.”[1] This is sometimes referred to as the “severe or pervasive” standard.

What makes discriminatory harassment “severe or pervasive?” As the Supreme Court has explained, to meet that standard a plaintiff bringing suit on a hostile work environment theory under Title VII, the ADEA, or the ADA must demonstrate (1) that “a reasonable person would find” the challenged conduct “hostile or abusive” and (2) that he/she/they “subjectively perceive[d]” it to be hostile or abusive.[2]

Citing the “severe or pervasive” standard, courts have found that some offensive workplace behavior – such as teasing or offhand remarks – may not rise to the level of unlawful harassment.

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