In New York City, multiple employment statutes protect employees from sexual harassment and other practices in the workplace. An archetypal example of workplace sexual harassment might involve a supervisor who demands some sort of sexual activity of a subordinate as a condition of hiring or continued employment. Another classic example involves sexual jokes, remarks, or other conduct that renders the workplace intolerable for the complainant, commonly known as “hostile work environment.” The laws dealing with sexual harassment arose, in large part, from complaints by female employees about actions by male supervisors, but unlawful sexual harassment is not limited to acts perpetrated by men against women. A complaint filed earlier this year with the New York City Commission on Human Rights (CHR), for example, alleges that a female chief executive officer subjected female employees to inappropriate sexual remarks and behavior in the office.
Sex discrimination in employment is unlawful under New York City law, New York state law, and federal law. The New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) prohibits “discriminat[ing] in compensation or in terms, conditions or privileges of employment” on the basis of gender and other factors. N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-107(1)(a)(3). The U.S. Supreme Court first recognized sexual harassment as a form of unlawful sex discrimination in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986). The court held that federal anti-discrimination law was not limited to “tangible, economic barriers erected by discrimination,” but instead it was “inten[ded] to strike at the entire spectrum of disparate treatment of men and women in employment.” Id. at 64 [internal citations omitted].
The scenario presented in Meritor involved a female employee’s claim of a hostile work environment created by the actions of a male supervisor. Courts have since expanded the legal concept of sexual harassment to include numerous other dynamics. Another landmark decision, Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., 523 U.S. 75 (1998), found that a male employee could bring a claim for sexual harassment based on conduct by male co-workers. The plaintiff worked on an offshore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, where co-workers “forcibly subjected [him] to sex-related, humiliating actions,” largely based on perceptions of his sexual orientation. Id. at 77. Justice Scalia, writing for a unanimous court, noted that “male-on-male sexual harassment…was assuredly not the principal evil Congress was concerned with,” but it is a “reasonably comparable evil” covered by federal law. Id. at 79.