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March 25, 2024 | EmploymentGeneralNew York

How to Prove a Hostile Work Environment in New York City

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In today’s professional landscape, creating a safe and inclusive work environment is paramount.  However, despite efforts to foster positive workplace cultures, instances of hostility and harassment can still occur, leaving employees feeling vulnerable and distressed.  Employees in these situations may be left with many questions regarding whether they have any legal recourse to resolve these issues.

What is a Hostile Work Environment? 

‘Hostile work environment’ is a legal term that refers to a form of workplace harassment.  This form of workplace harassment involves unwelcome conduct in the workplace, which creates an intimidating or offensive work environment.  The unwelcome conduct must be discriminatory in the sense that it is based on some protected characteristic, such as race, gender, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or disability.  Examples of relevant conduct may include offensive jokes, slurs, physical threats, unwanted advances or inappropriate physical touching, or any other verbal or physical conduct that makes the workplace uncomfortable or hostile.

While other forms of workplace discrimination, like discriminatory firing, stem from isolated acts, hostile work environment is usually marked by the aggregate effect of repeated instances of unwelcome and discriminatory behavior.  This behavior may be committed by one’s employer, supervisor, co-worker, and/or any other person present in the workplace.  Further, someone can be the victim of a hostile work environment even if they are not the intended target of that discriminatory, harassing behavior.

Ultimately, as discussed below, the legal requirements of a claim for hostile work environment vary depending on the applicable statute.  Consulting with an experienced employment attorney is valuable to understand the legal issues and relevant facts in a particular case.

Can You Sue Your Employer for a Hostile Work Environment in New York? 

In New York, like in many other jurisdictions, employees have legal protections against hostile work environments. In New York City, claims for hostile work environment can be brought under federal law (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), state law (New York State Human Rights Law), or local law (New York City Human Rights Law).  Under all three laws, the employee must show some element of hostility or discrimination based on a protected characteristic.

Prior to filing a suit for hostile work environment, an employee should utilize all internal reporting procedures at their company.  Failure to do so may hurt their ability to later prevail in court.  For example, under Title VII, an employer can defend against a hostile work environment suit if they can show (1) it took reasonable care to prevent continued harassing behavior and (2) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of internal preventive means, like filing complaints within the company, typically with human resources.

Employees should also be aware of deadlines to bring a hostile work environment claim under relevant statutes.  Title VII has a statute of limitations of 300 days from the most recent instance of harassing behavior, while New York laws allow for a period of three years. 

How to Prove a Work Environment is Hostile 

Depending on the law under which the claim is brought, the level of hostility and discrimination that an employee must show may vary.  Both Title VII and the New York State Human Rights Law require that an employee can show that the harassing behavior and other unwelcome conduct was “severe and pervasive.”  The workplace environment must be shown to be hostile from the viewpoints of both 1) an objective, reasonable person and 2) the employee bringing the claim.  In contrast, New York City Human Rights Law merely requires the employee to show that they were treated “less well” than other employees because of some protected characteristic, and that this discrimination amounted to more than “petty slights and trivial inconveniences.”

Relevant factors in evaluating a hostile work environment case include:

  • Frequency and severity of the discrimination
  • Whether the alleged discrimination arose to the level of threatening or humiliating
  • Whether the alleged discrimination interfered with the employee’s work

As evidence for their claim, it is important for an employee to properly document the relevant workplace behavior and any prior steps they took to remedy that behavior.  Evidence in a hostile work environment case may include:

  • Written documentation of specific harassing behavior
  • Photos or video surveillance of specific incidents of harassing behavior
  • Testimony from the employee and other individuals who witnessed or experienced the harassing behavior
  • Documentation of internal complaints filed by the employee, as well as any employer responses
  • Records of any investigations or corrective actions taken by the employer 

Contact an Experienced Employment Attorney 

Experiencing a hostile work environment can have serious effects on one’s well-being and ability to function in the workplace that no one should be forced to endure.  Addressing this hostility and discrimination in a timely manner is crucial to remedying those effects and ensuring one’s window to bring a legal claim does not expire.  An experienced employment attorney can help with navigating the various issues involved with a hostile work environment.

Contributions made by Ryan White.



Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash
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