The legal definition of sexual harassment is workplace conduct by a supervisor or co-worker – or, under certain circumstances, a third party such as a vendor or customer – that is directed at an employee because of that employee’s sex and is severe or pervasive enough to cause a reasonable person of the same sex as the targeted employee to believe that the conditions of employment have changed to make the work environment hostile. That’s a mouthful! So, let’s unpack that and restate it in plain English.Discriminatory Motive
Sexual harassment is one type of hostile work environment. Many people think that a hostile work environment is any workplace that is unpleasant. That is not the case under the law. An unlawful hostile work environment is one in which the hostility is directed at an employee because of a legally prohibited discriminatory or retaliatory motive.
With sexual harassment, the unlawful motive is discrimination based on the targeted employee’s sex. Most sexual harassment cases involve statements or actions that are explicitly sexual in nature. Under the law, courts assume that such harassment is directed at the employee because of the employee’s sex.
However, sexual harassment can also involve statements or actions that are not explicitly sexual but are directed only at employees of a particular sex. For example, if a supervisor screams at female employees when they make mistakes but does not do that to male employees, that can be sexual harassment.Severe or Pervasive
Not all harassment that is directed at an employee because of the employee’s sex is serious enough to make a legal claim of sexual harassment. The conduct must be severe or pervasive. “Severe” refers to a small number of incidents that are particularly bad. Under New Jersey law, even a single incident of sexual harassment is unlawful if it is serious enough. “Pervasive” refers to many incidents occurring regularly that are not that bad when considered by themselves but when taken together create a hostile work environment due to the frequency with which they occur.Reasonable Person Standard
Under New Jersey law, whether sexual harassment is bad enough to create a hostile work environment is judged based on how a reasonable person of the same sex as the harassed employee would feel. So, if the harassed employee is female, a reasonable woman standard will apply, and if the harassed employee is male, a reasonable man standard will apply.
If you are being or have been sexually harassed at work or are facing gender discrimination, call the employment lawyers at Lenzo & Reis, LLC, at (973) 845-9922. You may also contact our attorneys online. We represent people with sexual harassment claims in Morristown, Newark and Jersey City, and across New Jersey.