Unbearable Actions That Nevertheless Don’t Violate Employment Discrimination Law: How to Tell Legally Actionable Behavior Apart From Just Annoying Behavior

Prior to filing an employment discrimination, harassment, or retaliation claim, a claimant must assemble a strong evidence-based case. Thus, it’s useful to review precisely what constitutes a violation of workplace law and what’s just annoying behavior.

Federal law prohibits discrimination based on a variety of factors, including religion, race, sex, national origin, age, and sexual orientation. However, the law does not prohibit all forms of unpleasant behavior or speech. For instance, the annoying contact has to be ‘pervasive’ and it has to be significant enough to be construed as creating a hostile work environment.

What kinds of actions might be impermissible?

• Coworker repeatedly sends you sexually suggestive emails or pictures after you’ve requested him to stop.
• New boss makes racist or sexist remarks to subordinates; and uses “loaded” terms to describe someone’s ethnicity, gender identity or ancestry.
• A coworker inappropriately touches or threatens to touch you.

Isolated incidents may not be actionable. Not all teasing will be considered harassment. Certain casual but offensive comments — which are not intended to be heard by others — may also not be actionable. Private remarks made on blogs or on social network sites like MySpace and Facebook may or may not constitute a problem.

Legal scholars hotly debate many of these issues. At precisely what point do free speech and privacy rights trump the rights of employees to work in an environment free of teasing, tormenting, and gossip?

Harassing contact must be ‘unwelcomed.’ For instance, if your boss flirts with you; and you respond by returning the flirtation and perhaps even initiating a relationship, that may not be considered harassment, although the legal issues that can crop up when a boss and subordinate start dating can get quite complicated.

If you or a family member or friend has been victimized by harassment, discrimination, retaliation, or other problems stemming from a hostile work environment, and you want sound advice about whether or not legal action may be a solid option, connect today with the attorneys here at Joseph & Kirschenbaum. Your consultation with us is free and confidential, and you can call us any time at our number at (212) 688-5640, or visit us online at www.jhllp.com.

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