What constitutes an unlawful hostile work environment?

Hostile work environment is a frequently used and frequently misinterpreted phrase that has a specific legal definition. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination establishes a hostile work environment exists when an employee can prove that the harassment he or she is enduring:

  • Would not have occurred but for the employee’s legally protected characteristic (sex, sexual orientation, gender, race, national original, age, religion, etc.)
  • The harassment was severe or pervasive enough to make;
  • A reasonable person of the same protected characteristic believes that;
  • The conditions of employment have been altered and the working environment is hostile or abusive.

New Jersey courts have adopted the severe or pervasive test to determine whether an employee has been subjected to an unlawful hostile work environment. As discussed in the July 1 blog, this can include a single incident or repeated conduct. The determinative factor is whether a reasonable person of the same protected class would believe that the work environment has been hostile.

If you believe you are experiencing a hostile work environment because you are in one of the protected categories, you should take notes for yourself about what is being done or said. In addition, if your employer has put in place a procedure to complain to someone at work about the problem, such as a human resources manager, you should consider making a complaint. It is also a good idea to speak to an employment lawyer for guidance.