Hostile Work Environments: A Guide for New York Employees 

hostile workplace lawyers ny

Your boss has a temper and frequently yells at your colleagues for being late or making mistakes.

You’re a new hire replacing someone who was recently fired, and the former employee’s friends go out of their way to treat you poorly, even sabotaging your work.

You requested an accommodation from your manager due to a health condition, and now she makes frequent, public jokes about it.

Interpersonal conflicts at work can take a toll on professional relationships, performance, and mental health.

In some situations, behavior can cross the line from uncomfortable and annoying to hostile and illegal. Many employees in these circumstances feel that something is wrong but due to employer inaction, fear, or lack of knowledge, don’t know where or how to get help.

In this guide, we’ll walk through the legal definition of a hostile work environment and explain what circumstances are needed to bring a legal suit in New York.

We will also outline the steps that employees in these situations can take to get help and legal restitution.

If you have questions or would like to speak with a hostile work environment lawyer in New York, please contact us online today.

What Is A Hostile Work Environment? 

The term “hostile work environment” describes a type of discriminatory harassment that is prohibited under federal, New York state, and some local laws.

Put broadly, a workplace becomes a hostile environment when certain types of offensive or abusive behavior interfere with an employee’s ability to perform their job. 

Both federal and New York state laws specifically define a hostile work environment as a type of illegal discrimination.

This means that the offensive conduct is related to one of the traits or characteristics particularly protected under anti-discrimination law, such as race, gender, disability, or religion.

Several different actions or inappropriate situations can contribute to a hostile work environment in New York. Offensive conduct includes, but is not limited to the following:

  • Offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name-calling,
  • display of offensive objects or pictures, 
  • intimidation, mockery, insults, or put-downs, 
  • inappropriate or unwanted touching,
  • physical threats or assaults, and 
  • interference with work performance.

Importantly, the law prohibits this kind of offensive, hostile behavior in the workplace regardless of who perpetrates it: your boss, a supervisor from another department, a co-worker, even third-party associates or non-employees (e.g. contractors, consultants, clients).

Additionally, you don’t have to be the direct target of inappropriate behavior to experience a hostile work environment. For example, a product manager at a bank might feel uncomfortable and stressed working with a client who regularly tells offensive jokes about her coworker who has a disability.

Even if the product manager herself is not disabled and not the intended recipient of the abuse, her emotional well-being, and professional performance could still be significantly affected by the misconduct, due to fear that she will become a target, or from fallout due to the negative atmosphere caused by this mistreatment.

Take note: There’s a difference between general workplace bullying and discriminatory harassment that constitutes a hostile work environment. Neither New York state nor federal labor protections offer protections from workplace bullying.

For instance, harsh behavior from an executive at a media company who’s known for her short temper could create tension in the work environment, if she frequently yells, berates, and insults her assistants and coworkers.

But that wouldn’t necessarily be considered a “hostile work environment” in the legal sense unless there’s an illegally discriminatory pattern to her mistreatment.

For example, in New York, state law defines discriminatory conduct as harassment directed at protected classes, including targeted, differential treatment based on:

In New York City, it’s also illegal to harass or discriminate against workers because of their:

  • Immigration or citizenship status,
  • Sexual and reproductive-health decisions,
  • Employment status,
  • Credit history, or
  • Caregiver status.

Legislation at the federal level is a little more limited. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans harassment in the workplace directed at employees for their race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy status), national origin, age (if 40 or older), or disability.

This law — along with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 — only applies to employers with 15 or more employees.

By contrast, New York State and New York City human rights legislation offers these protections to anyone employed at an organization, regardless of number of employees.

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How Do I Prove That I’m Experiencing A Hostile Work Environment In New York?

There are a couple of elements that must be proven for a court to deem a situation a hostile work environment in New York:

  1. The workplace was permeated with offensive behavior, abuse, and/or intimidation, that was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s work environment; 
  2. The offensive behavior involved or was directed at the characteristics of a group protected under New York anti-discrimination law; and
  3. The employer’s action or inaction was instrumental in creating the hostile work environment (e.g. the harassment came from the victim’s supervisor, or the organization knew about the harassment and didn’t take sufficient steps to end it).

New York law uses the “reasonable person” standard to determine whether or not misconduct qualifies as illegal harassment. In essence, an imagined “reasonable person” — not just the victim — must be able to consider the work environment intimidating, hostile, or abusive because of the misbehavior.

That being said, a hostile work environment claim is usually based on the cumulative effect of a series of acts that work together to negatively impact a person’s terms and conditions of employment.

Generally, isolated incidents aren’t enough to qualify for creating a hostile work environment unless the incident is very serious — for example, if there’s a clear threat to an employee’s safety.

To determine if misconduct is “sufficiently severe or pervasive” to warrant a hostile environment, a court will look at the totality of the circumstances. Some relevant factors will be:

  1. The frequency of the misconduct;
  2. how harsh or distressing the offensive behavior was; 
  3. whether the actions were physically threatening or humiliating compared to an offensive utterance; 
  4. whether the misconduct unreasonably interfered with an employee’s work performance; and
  5. the effect of the environment on the employee’s psychological well-being.

New York courts will also examine the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator of the harassment when considering the role of an employer’s (in)actions in creating the hostile environment.  

In situations when the harassing employee is a co-worker or non-employee, the employer would only be liable if they were negligent in managing control over the working conditions.

Legally, “negligent” means the employer failed to use reasonable care to avoid causing injury. For instance, a private equity firm could be considered negligent if they don’t provide confidential avenues for reporting misconduct to HR, and as a result, employees are too intimidated to make formal complaints of inappropriate behavior. 

In cases when harassment comes from an employee’s direct supervisor, though, an employer can be found “strictly liable” even if their actions didn’t contribute to the injury.

“Strict liability” means the employer is held legally accountable for the misconduct, regardless of whether or not they were negligent in their actions as an employer.

Consider a situation where the VP of a management consulting group is regularly flirtatious with younger department members.

When you raise an objection to a coworker about the VP’s actions, and he begins threatening you, your employer could be held strictly liable if you’re ultimately demoted or fired — even if there was no oversight on their part directly involved.

What Do To If You’re A New York Employee Experiencing A Hostile Work Environment 

First of all, if you’re experiencing inappropriate behavior of any kind at work, don’t just ignore it and hope it will go away. In New York, there are time limitations for seeking legal redress for any workplace rights violations, so it’s important to act promptly to file a complaint and/or lawsuit.

One of the most essential things to do if you think you’re experiencing a hostile work environment is to collect detailed evidence of the behavior. Keep copies of any communications (emails, text messages, notes, gifts) that contribute to the harassment.

Take photos of any images or drawings you encounter, and keep a log of any incidents that occur, including the date, time, and names of any others who were there.

If the situation is ongoing, keep a record of the impact that it has on your performance at work, as well as your emotional state.

It’s also important to make sure there’s an internal record of your experience. Look up your company’s complaint procedure and make an official report to HR, if you can.

If you’ve only complained verbally, be sure to follow up in an appropriate channel in writing. Be sure to detail the subject and circumstances of your complaint. In general, it’s to your benefit to follow your employer’s official process as closely as you can.

You should give your employer the opportunity to take corrective action in response to your concerns. If your employer doesn’t take any action, however, you’ll want to be able to show that they were aware of the issue, in case you choose to file a civil claim later.

In addition to an internal complaint, employees can file a formal administrative complaint of a New York hostile work environment with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

In general, a complaint with the EEOC for discrimination must be filed within 300 calendar days of the date the discrimination took place. 

New York employees can also file a complaint with the New York Division of Human Rights. Like with the EEOC, the state Division of Human Rights has a 300-day deadline for filing a discrimination complaint (for issues of specifically sexual harassment and discrimination, the deadline extends to three years).

The Division will check that it has jurisdiction over your case, and if so, they’ll investigate. Once the investigation is complete, the Division may find that there is probable cause that an act of discrimination has occurred. If they do find this, your case will receive a public hearing

Employees also have the option of filing a civil lawsuit directly in New York state court. If you choose to sue your harasser or your employer for a hostile work environment, though, you must do so within three years of the last incident.

Although the statute of limitations for a civil lawsuit is longer than those for filing administrative claims, it’s still a good idea to consult as soon as possible with an experienced legal advocate.

An employment discrimination attorney in New York can help you understand your rights and advise you on your options for filing a complaint or lawsuit well ahead of the stated deadlines.

What Recovery Is Available For Victims Of Hostile Work Environments In New York?

Employees who have been victims of hostile work environments in New York state can receive financial recovery if their suit is successful.

A successful civil suit for hostile work environment discrimination in New York can include compensatory and punitive damages, as well as payment of a victim’s attorneys’ fees and costs.

Compensatory damages are intended to put victims in the same positions or nearly the same positions as they would have been had the discrimination never occurred. These kinds of damages include back pay, benefits, medical expenses, pain and suffering, and sometimes front pay or reinstatement. 

As of 2019, punitive damages are also available for discriminatory harassment in the form of a hostile work environment under New York State and New York City law.

These damages are issued by courts as a penalty to perpetrators of harassment or discrimination that’s found to be especially severe, or to employers whose negligence is particularly egregious.

In New York state, there’s no upper limit on the amount of compensatory or punitive damages that can be awarded for workplace harassment suits.

Some punitive damages are also available for lawsuits brought under federal law, in situations when the victim can show there was intentional discrimination based on their membership in a protected group and that the conduct was especially malicious or reckless.

Employees should be aware, though: unlike in New York state, federal Title VII places limits on the amount that employees can recover in damages for discrimination suits.

Get In Contact With A New York Employment Lawyer Today

Since 1999, Ottinger Employment Lawyers has advocated on behalf of employees in New York facing abuse and harassment in the workplace.

Our team of experienced attorneys are experts trained in federal as well as New York’s state and local employment laws. Even if you’re unsure whether you want to file a lawsuit, our attorneys can evaluate your case, advise you on your options, and serve as a mediator on your behalf.

If you’re a New York employee who’s been struggling with mistreatment at work, contact our team today to speak with an experienced attorney about how we can help you.

Ottinger Employment Lawyers
401 Park Ave S.
New York, NY 10016
(347) 353-8776