Since the fall of 2017, the national discourse has given considerable attention to the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, perhaps more than it has ever received before. This is often referred to as the #MeToo movement. According to some news reports, it has left managers, supervisors, and executives in some industries uncertain about the future. In late 2018, Bloomberg reported that some Wall Street managers have adopted a new rule: “Avoid women at all costs.” Hyperbole aside, this reveals what could become a larger problem. In an effort to avoid what they perceive as risks for future sexual harassment claims, could employers perpetuate other forms of sex discrimination? One column describes this as a possible “unintended consequence” of #MeToo, as if women and their advocates somehow bear some share of responsibility. Other pieces take tones that range from scolding to mocking. For New York City sexual harassment attorneys, this is a very serious question.
Employment discrimination on the basis of sex is prohibited in New York City under three statutes: Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL), and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). An employer violates the law if they refuse to hire, refuse to promote, terminate, or otherwise discriminate against an individual based on their sex. These laws protect both men and women, although it is women who bear the brunt of sex discrimination in the workplace, both historically and currently. Provisions in the NYCHRL additionally protect transgender and non-binary workers against discrimination.
Sexual harassment constitutes sex discrimination under these statutes in two general scenarios: quid pro quo sexual harassment and hostile work environment. The U.S. Supreme Court first recognized sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination under Title VII more than thirty years ago in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986). It expanded this to include same-sex sexual harassment, e.g. male employees subjecting another male employee to a hostile work environment, twelve years later in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, 523 U.S. 75 (1998).