Sexual harassment in employment is still all too common in New York

Sexual harassment at work is an illegal form of sex discrimination.

Unfortunately, on any given day, an Internet search usually yields current stories of sexual harassment allegations in New York workplaces. For example, as of this writing in May 2015, these stories appear:

  • A former New York City Council employee alleges a councilman fired her for resisting sexual advances and that a hostile work environment was created by "demeaning, sexist remarks"; she will bring a sexual harassment claim against the city for $1.25 million in damages, reports the New York Post.
  • A former sales manager of a major corporation has sued the company in New York state court for (in addition to claims of disability and age discrimination) allegedly firing him in retaliation for complaining about sexual harassment in the Manhattan office that included repeated harassment by a manager who punished female employees who "refused his advances," reports Reuters.

So what is illegal sexual harassment? It is a type of unlawful discrimination based on gender or sex that shows up in the workplace in two main ways: as quid pro quo harassment or through the experience of a hostile work environment.

Quid pro quo harassment happens when a superior offers an employee a positive employment incentive like a raise, promotion or perk in exchange for a sexual favor, or when an employee is threatened with a negative employment action like wrongful discharge, demotion or a benefits reduction for not complying with a sexual request.

A hostile work environment is created when the atmosphere is sexually charged and interferes with work performance or becomes intimidating or offensive. Behavior that creates such an environment can include verbal (off-color jokes, lewd comments, talking about someone's body or sexuality and so on); written, graphic or pictorial (inappropriate graffiti, pictures, computer screen content and so on); or physical (suggestive gestures, inappropriate touching and more).

Normally, quid pro quo harassment only has to happen once to be legally actionable, whereas the circumstances creating a hostile environment must happen more than once.

Harassment can be perpetrated by or experienced by a person of either gender, and may be done by someone of the same or opposite gender as the victim. In addition, sexual harassment sometimes has a specific targeted victim, but also may impact other people working around that victim. It can also occur just generally to people working around someone displaying sexually offensive behavior.

Sexual harassment at work is illegal under federal and New York state civil rights laws, as well as local laws of New York City and some other local governments. Anyone who feels he or she is being sexually harassed at work should immediately speak with an experienced employment lawyer for direction, because it is a complex legal question to decide which legal remedy to select. For example, there may be advantages to bringing a claim under federal as opposed to state or local law, depending on the circumstances. Each jurisdiction's laws may apply to different types or sizes of employers, and available remedies and damages may vary.

In addition, this area of law is known for having strict deadlines and notice requirements as well as for being procedurally complicated in a complex interplay between government agencies and the courts.

From an employer's point of view, legal counsel about sexual harassment law is important for creating company policy, complaint and correction procedures, and for responding to a claim or lawsuit.

Serving both employees and employers, the employment law attorneys at Mitchell Pollack & Associates PLLC have offices in Tarrytown, New York, and Mahwah, New Jersey.

Keywords: sexual harassment, work, sex discrimination, employment, New York, workplace, hostile work environment, retaliation, sexual advance, quid pro quo, employee, wrongful discharge