An old proverb says that a “little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” In few areas is that more true than the law. Some non-lawyers fancy themselves knowledgeable in the law. They may have taken a seminar discussing an area of the law, they may even engage with the law semi-regularly at work, but they may still not know the law. Sometimes, the impacts of that are benign. Other times, especially when it comes to employment law, the effects most definitely are not. If you’re someone who had this kind of experience and suffered workplace harm as a result of it, do not delay in getting in touch with an experienced New York employment discrimination lawyer.
One of the latest examples comes from a hostile work environment case from here in the city. The plaintiff, M.G., worked at an employment agency in Brooklyn. One day, a male coworker swore at a female coworker. That included calling her the “B-word.” The female coworker complained to management.
A week and a half later, during a meeting that included M.G., the male coworker, and the CEO, the CEO indicated that the female coworker would be terminated. The CEO also decided to conduct an impromptu legal seminar, telling M.G. that a coworker could call her that B-word and that such conduct “was not discrimination.”
A month later, the CEO engaged in part two of his lessons on the law. During a meeting with three new workers, the CEO reiterated that being called the B-word “was not discrimination.” Going further, he faced a Muslim member of the trio and stated that being called a “Muslim [B-word]” is not discrimination and that “this is not a hostile work environment.”
Had the CEO said that these kinds of offensive acts did not always make for a hostile work environment, he would have been right. But he didn’t, and he wasn’t.
The law is very clear that harassment “must be more than episodic” under the law. However, even infrequent occurrences can be the basis for a winning hostile work environment case if sufficiently severe.
The law is also clear that harassing comments do not have to be made to you. In M.G.’s case, she never alleged that anyone called her the B-word. This kind of harassment, even when targeted toward someone else, is something you can use successfully if you sufficiently demonstrate “disparate treatment based on sex that was pervasive enough to render the conditions of employment hostile.”
M.G. had that, according to the judge. The male coworker and the CEO’s various deployments of the misogynistic slur established a workplace where women were treated disparately based on sex and where that treatment was adequately pervasive to make the workplace hostile for the company’s female employees.
Not Just the Use of the Slurs But Also the Employer’s Response
Part of the basis for this woman’s success was that she had more than just the intermittent uses of the slurs. She had proof that a female colleague was punished for reporting a male coworker’s use of “an offensive sex-related profanity” but the man who use the slur was not reprimanded. She also alleged that the CEO, on more than one occasion, reminded her that she was an “at-will” employee, seemingly conveying an implicit threat that she could be fired at any moment if she did not stop objecting to harassment in the workplace. Together, all of these things added up to the defendants’ “complicity in encouraging rather than discouraging the use of the word and the disparate treatment of women.”
When you, as a worker, have a discrimination or harassment case based upon a limited number of slurs or improper comments, your employer may argue that anti-discrimination law is not a “general civility code” and “sporadic use of abusive language, gender-related jokes, and occasional teasing” is generally not a violation.
While that is often true, it is not always true. The law requires courts to “look at all the circumstances” that surrounded the alleged conduct. In M.G.’s case, she had not only the slurs, but also the employer’s encouragement of them, and the disparate treatment of the women who complained. This, the court decided, was enough, under federal, state, and city law to establish a hostile work environment.
No one should have to endure a workplace where they (or people like them) are addressed with derogatory slurs and epithets based on their sex/gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, color, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Nevertheless, it goes on at too many workplaces. What some employers may try to dismiss as merely innocent teasing may actually amount to illegal harassment. Don’t tolerate it. Instead, reach out to the experienced New York hostile work environment attorneys at Phillips & Associates. To find out more about how we can help you, contact us online or at (212) 248-7431 to set up a free and confidential consultation today.