State and federal employment laws protect employees from workplace harassment based on their race, color, religion, national origin, sex, gender, pregnancy, age or disability. Employers have a duty to investigate harassment complaints and to take appropriate corrective action to remedy the situation and prevent future harassment. Failing to respond to a harassment complaint can result in employer liability. Employers should be proactive about preventing workplace harassment and should not wait for a complaint to arise before addressing the issue. If you have questions about harassment prevention strategies, or if a coworker or supervisor is harassing you, an experienced Monmouth County business attorney can help.
What Constitutes Harassment?
Workplace harassment involves any unwelcome conduct based on the legally protected characteristics outlined above. Illegal harassment occurs when enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment or when the offensive conduct creates a hostile, intimidating or abusive work environment. Examples include:
- Using racial or ethnic slurs
- Making jokes about or mocking, ridiculing, insulting or putting down someone based on race, age, religion, gender, etc.
- Displaying offensive, hateful or vulgar images
- Sending obscene emails
- Sharing derogatory written materials
- Staring or leering in a sexual manner
- Repeatedly asking for dates
- Making lewd sounds or gestures
- Unwelcome touching (e.g., patting, hugging, pinching, rubbing one’s shoulders, etc.)
- Commenting inappropriately about a person’s body, clothing or appearance
- Asking overly personal questions
- Making threats
- Physically assaulting someone
Isolated or petty incidents generally do not constitute illegal workplace harassment. To be illegal, the offensive conduct must be severe or pervasive enough to affect conditions of employment or create an environment that a reasonable person would consider hostile, intimidating or abusive.
Preventing Harassment in the Workplace
Employers can take a number of steps to prevent workplace harassment, including:
- Clearly communicating that harassment will not be tolerated
- Implementing a harassment prevention policy
- Incorporating the anti-harassment policy into employee handbooks
- Distributing the policy to employees upon hire
- Posting the policy on bulletin boards
- Establishing a procedure for reporting harassment
- Informing employees of the process for investigating and resolving complaints
- Providing harassment prevention training to managers and employees
- Immediately investigating complaints and taking appropriate corrective action
Effective anti-harassment policies usually define harassment, provide examples of prohibited conduct, outline the procedure for making complaints, explain the investigation process, and offer reassurance that complaints will be promptly investigated without retaliation against the complaining employee or those who participate in the investigation. A Monmouth County business lawyer can assist you with developing or updating your company’s anti-harassment policy to ensure compliance with state and federal employment laws.