Cases of workplace harassment typically involve pervasive, ongoing misconduct. However, any comments, actions or threats that create a hostile work environment can be the basis for a legal claim.
And the New Jersey Supreme Court just ruled that even a couple of offensive comments could be enough to create a hostile work environment.
Employer liability for offensive comments
The case involved a Hispanic worker who claimed that his supervisor directed highly offensive racist slurs at him twice during his employment. After both incidents, the employee reported the events to the Director of Human Services.
However, the company took no action, and the supervisor ultimately terminated the employee citing poor performance.
The employee filed a lawsuit alleging that the supervisor’s statements and the company’s inaction created a hostile work environment. While the harassment consisted of just two events, the racial slurs were offensive enough to taint future interactions with Hispanic workers in the company.
And the fact that the slurs came from the man’s direct supervisor made them that much more offensive.
The state’s Supreme Court determined that the details of the case supported the man’s allegation of a hostile work environment and violated New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination.
What this means for New York employers and employees
If you live or work in New York, this case can still affect you. The ruling sends a message that harassment need not be constant to violate an employee’s rights. And it should remind all employers that responding to allegations of harassment appropriately is just as critical as preventing them in the first place.
Employers may want to review their policies for training managers, reporting harassment and responding to complaints to ensure that they comply with state and federal laws.
No employee should have to deal with a hostile work environment. However, if misconduct is occurring, employees should know they have rights when it comes to making a complaint. And employers would be wise to take swift action to investigate and put a stop to any unlawful harassment.