Office Politics: When Does the Drama Go Too Far?

Does the workplace sometimes feel like high school? Do workers gang up on each other, teasing and sometimes even humiliating each other? Are you afraid people are gossiping about you and spreading lies behind your back? Do they insult you and then insist they are “joking”?

If you’ve ever experienced any of this drama, you are not alone. Unfortunately, many workplaces are hamstrung with unnecessary harassment and meanness. And in many cases, you have no choice but to try and avoid unpleasant colleagues just to get through your day.

However, office drama sometimes slips over and becomes harassment, which is a form of workplace discrimination. The dividing line between an uncomfortable office and one that is harassing is not always clear. Helpfully, a New Jersey harassment lawyer can help you.

What is Illegal Harassment?

There is a misconception that the only type of workplace harassment is sexual harassment, where a boss fires you for refusing to sleep with him. To be sure, this type of quid pro quo sexual harassment is certainly illegal, and you have a definite case if a supervisor conditions any aspect of employment on having sex.

However, a workplace can also be harassing if it is “hostile.” In essence, a hostile workplace is one where harassing conduct is so widespread and/or severe that the workplace becomes oppressive. Hostile workplaces can interfere with worker performance and cause enormous emotional distress.

Under federal and state law, harassment encompasses more than sexual harassment. Instead, harassment can be based on any protected characteristic, such as race, age, disability, national origin and religion, among others. So if a workplace is racially hostile, it is illegal.

What Conduct Qualifies as Harassment?

This has no real bright-line answer. Certain conduct is clearly harassing, such as unwelcome:

  • Jokes
  • Crude remarks
  • Slurs
  • Epithets
  • Offensive gestures
  • Touching
  • Explicit language or imagery

However, a single joke or name calling does not, by itself, make the workplace hostile. You might be justifiably upset, but the workplace is not oppressive for a single offensive comment.

Also, a comment has to be offensive to a reasonable person. You might think that the phrase “black sheep” is racist, but that does not mean that the average person would find it offensive. Basically, workers cannot be hypersensitive.

To qualify as hostile, harassment must be sufficiently severe or pervasive, or both. Are you insulted every day? Does someone post racist or sexist pictures in visible areas, which they refuse to remove, even after you’ve asked? Do people have an offensive nickname, like “Darkie,” which someone calls you repeatedly? If so, then the workplace might be intimidating and abusive.

Also, some conduct is so offensive that one instance of it can make the workplace harassing. Usually, this is unwelcome touching, like a grope or someone punching you, if they were motivated by a protected characteristic.

What to Do if You are Not Sure

No one needs to tolerate a harassing workplace. For help analyzing whether the conduct is sufficiently offensive to make your workplace illegal, you should meet with an experienced New Jersey employment lawyer.

At Sattiraju Law, we represent the interests of employees who are suffering in harassing workplaces. For more information about your rights, please contact us for a consultation today by calling 609-216-7817.