Perceived Ostracism By Co-workers Does Not Create Employer Liability For Hostile Work Environment

Under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (the “LAD”), an employer who acts negligently in eradicating discriminatory conduct from the workplace may be held vicariously liable for the discriminatory actions of its employees. In a victory for employers statewide, the Appellate Division refused to find an oil delivery company liable for one of its trainer’s racially charged statements to a co-worker where the employer had appropriate mechanisms in place to prevent and address incidents of unlawful workplace harassment.

The Facts:  In , the plaintiff employee, an African-American, asserted that he was subjected to a racially-hostile work environment as a result of certain offensive, racially-charged comments by a trainer who was not a supervisor of the employee.  After the employee complained to the company about the trainer’s behavior, his supervisors met with him to discuss the incident, conducted an internal investigation and assigned the employee a new trainer.  The company also maintained a detailed non-discrimination policy in its employee handbook that was distributed to every employee.  The employee left the job despite the company’s efforts, claiming that he felt ostracized by his co-workers following his complaint to management.  Thereafter, the employee filed suit claiming he was subjected to a racially-hostile work environment in violation of the LAD.  The company argued that it was not liable for the co-worker’s actions, pointing to its policies against discrimination and the prompt remedial actions it took in response to the employee’s complaint.     

The Finding:  The court agreed with the company and dismissed the discrimination suit.  The court cited the fact that the company kept a detailed employee handbook with a policy barring harassment and discrimination and providing detailed procedures to be followed when reporting and investigating harassment and discrimination claims.  Moreover, when the company learned of the employee’s complaint it did not ignore it or otherwise overlook reprehensible behavior, but undertook efforts to investigate his claim and separated him from the alleged harasser.  In the face of the efforts, the employee’s perception of his co-workers’ opinions of him was insufficient to support a hostile work environment claim.

The Takeaway:  The lessons to employers are clear: (1) maintain and distribute to each employee a detailed anti-discrimination and harassment policy; (2) when a complaint arises, meet with the complaining employee and conduct a prompt, objective internal investigation into the incident; and (3) undertake all appropriate disciplinary and other remedial measures to eradicate the discriminatory conduct from the workplace.  In addition, employers should consider consulting with employment  counsel for further guidance when these situations arise.

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