An Overview of the Handling of Hostile Work Environment Complaints for New Jersey Employers

Posted June 21, 2024

  • An Overview of the Handling of Hostile Work Environment Complaints for New Jersey Employers

It is imperative that New Jersey based employers address employee complaints of a hostile work environment in a thorough, timely, and efficient manner. Failure to do so could result in a toxic workplace culture, and even costly litigation. A hostile work environment typically involves conduct based on certain characteristics that are protected under state and federal laws that is severe or pervasive enough to create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. The aim of this blog is to guide employers on best practices for addressing such complaints.

There are several federal laws that are implicated by complaints of a hostile work environment. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and serves as a key federal statute addressing hostile work environments. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities, and many hostile work environment claims circle on such discrimination. Finally, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) addresses age-based workplace discrimination.

There are also several comprehensive New Jersey State Statutes that can serve as the basis for a hostile work environment complaint. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) applies to all employers, and prohibits discrimination based on various protected characteristics including race, creed, color, national origin, nationality, ancestry, age, sex, gender identity or expression, affectional or sexual orientation, marital status, familial status, disability, or liability for service in the Armed Forces. The Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) protects employees who report workplace misconduct, including harassment and discrimination, from retaliation from the employer.

In order to effectively prevent and address instances of a hostile work environment, there are several practices that employers should implement. First, employers should make it clear what constitutes workplace harassment and discrimination, such as racial slurs, unwelcome sexual advances, and other derogatory comments. Next, there should be a published reporting procedure that is accessible to all employees, which should include multiple reporting channels, such as direct supervisors, human resources, and anonymous hotlines, and a transparent timeline. These policies should also make it clear that all complaints will be taken seriously, investigated promptly, and kept confidential to the extent possible. Finally, it should be emphasized to employees that retaliation against individuals who report harassment or participate in investigations is strictly prohibited.

When investigating complaints, employers should utilize an experienced and neutral investigator with no conflicts of interest, whose findings will be unbiased and comprehensive. The investigation should involve comprehensive evidence collection, including but not limited to witness statements, documentation and electronic communication.

Finally, in the event that an investigator determines that harassment and/or discrimination occurred, employers should take prompt and effective remedial action, including discipline against the harasser, support for the victim, and a review and/or revision of policies and training, if necessary.

About the Author

Robert Devaney, an associate with the firm, concentrates his practice in labor & employment law, education & school law, and family law. Robert focuses a large part of his practice on working with Military Veterans with their labor, employment, and family law matters. Having served in the United States Marine Corps for nine years before receiving his Honorable Discharge, Robert has a unique understanding of the issues that Veterans face in these areas. For example, he serves as legal counsel to the New Jersey Veterans Network.

 

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