The First Amendment of the US Constitution gives everyone the right to free speech – including the right to say things that others might disagree with. At the same time, it does not give anyone the right to make defamatory statements about others.
Particularly, defamatory statements made by your employer, supervisor, or others in the workplace can lead to a hostile work environment. It can ruin your reputation, affect your ability to work, and cause a great deal of emotional distress as well.
What Constitutes Workplace Defamation in New York?
Defamation in the workplace can be verbal – which is commonly referred to as slander – or in writing – which is widely referred to as libel.
In order to prove workplace defamation, you must establish the following elements.
- The statement in question was factually false.
- It was shared with or communicated to a third party.
- The at-fault party (the person who made the statement) had no right or privilege to make the statement.
- The statement caused you harm or damage.
What Constitutes a Hostile Work Environment in New York?
Under New York law, a hostile work environment is defined as a workplace where employees feel unwelcome, isolated, and intimidated due to discrimination and harassment based on a protected characteristic.
The protected characteristics covered under the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) include:
- Creed or religion
- Domestic violence victim status
- Gender identity
- Marital status
- Military status
- National origin
- Predisposing genetic characteristics
- Pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions
- Arrest or conviction record
- Race or skin color
- Sexual orientation
The New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) covers all the aforementioned characteristics. It also covers a number of additional protected characteristics including:
- Caregiver status
- Credit history
- Sexual and reproductive health decisions
- Salary history
If you are discriminated against or harassed based on any of the aforementioned characteristics and if the discrimination or harassment is so severe or perverse that you can no longer perform your job-related duties like you normally do, your workplace can be considered a hostile work environment.
How Does Workplace Defamation Intersect with Discrimination and Harassment Based on Protected Characteristics?
Workplace defamation often tends to intersect with discrimination and harassment based on a protected characteristic, as people from racial, ethnic, and religious minority groups and people belonging to the LGBTQ+ community are seen as easy targets by many, which makes them vulnerable to defamation and other forms of harassment.
Particularly, workplace defamation can intersect with issues related to gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation in ways that can perpetuate discrimination and harassment. Here are some of the ways defamation can intersect with gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation-based discrimination and harassment in the workplace.
Defamation and Sexual Harassment
Spreading malicious rumors about the sex life and sexual activities of an individual in the workplace can be considered defamation as well as sexual harassment. For example, if someone in the workplace alleges that a female employee has an affair with her supervisor when it is actually not true, it can be considered defamation as well as sexual harassment.
Stereotyping and Mischaracterization
Defamatory statements related to an individual’s gender identity or sexual orientation can reinforce harmful stereotypes and mischaracterizations about the behavior and characteristics of people belonging to those groups.
Outing and Privacy Violation
Defamation in the workplace can involve the disclosure of an individual’s gender identity or sexual orientation without their consent. Apart from being a gross violation of an individual’s privacy, it can also lead to targeted discrimination and harassment at the workplace.
Defamation can be used as a form of retaliation against LGBTQ+ employees who raise concerns or complain about problematic issues in the workplace. The fear of being defamed and harassed can deter such individuals from speaking out or taking any kind of action against the issues they are concerned about.
The Root Causes of Workplace Defamation and Discrimination
There are many reasons why defamation, discrimination, and harassment based on race, sex, gender identity, religion, national origin, and other protected characteristics are common in many workplaces. These include:
- Deep-seated prejudice and bias against racial minorities, LGBTQ+ community, and people belonging to other protected classes
- Ignorance and lack of understanding about the lived experiences and challenges faced by people belonging to protected classes
- Fear and intolerance towards differences in race, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation, can manifest as discriminatory and defamatory behavior
- Cultural and social norms that tolerate discrimination against vulnerable sections of society
- Misguided beliefs and perceptions that certain groups of people pose a threat to the society, culture, and country
- Lack of inclusive policies in the workplace and the lack of diversity and inclusivity training for employees
What are the Signs of a Hostile Work Environment?
The most common signs of a hostile work environment include:
- Discriminatory comments, jokes, and slurs based on race, skin color, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and other protected characteristics might occur regularly. Such behavior is often directed at a particular employee or a group of employees belonging to a protected characteristic.
- Using offensive language that belittles, humiliates, and degrades individuals based on their protected characteristics is a sign of a hostile work environment. This may include name-calling, mockery, and insults.
- Excluding or isolating a particular employee from work-related activities, meetings, and social events can be a sign of a hostile workplace. The individual in question might be deliberately left out of group discussions, training programs, and other team-based activities, which can cause them to feel marginalized.
- Discriminatory or inequitable treatment based on an employee’s protected characteristic can lead to a hostile environment, where the employee might feel unwelcome and left out.
- Intimidation and threats – whether explicit or implicit – can lead to a hostile environment in the workplace.
- Unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature – including unwanted physical contact, sexually explicit jokes and comments, sexual remarks about an individual’s body or clothing, suggestive gestures like winking, throwing kisses, and smacking lips, asking questions about an individual’s sex life, showing sexually explicit images or videos, and indecent exposure – can lead to a toxic work environment where the individual being targeted – as well as other employees who belong to the same protected class – might no longer feel safe.
Examples of Defamation at the Workplace which Creates a Hostile Work Environment
False Accusations of Misconduct: John spreads a false rumor that Sarah, his coworker, stole office supplies and sold them for personal gain, damaging her reputation within the company.
Spreading Malicious Gossip: Emily and Alex engage in gossip, falsely claiming that David, a colleague, is having an affair with a coworker and is experiencing financial difficulties.
Unsubstantiated Allegations of Incompetence: Manager Karen falsely asserts in a performance review that Michael is consistently making costly mistakes and implies that he is incapable of performing his job adequately.
False Statements in Performance Reviews: In Lisa’s performance review, her supervisor, Mark, includes untrue negative statements, suggesting that she has a poor work ethic and lacks the necessary skills for her role.
Social Media Defamation: On a public Facebook post, Jessica, an employee, makes false and damaging statements about her coworker, Brian, leading to humiliation and tension in the workplace.
Anonymous Accusations: Anonymous emails are sent to several employees, accusing Olivia of unethical behavior and embezzlement, causing fear and confusion within the company.
False Claims of Criminal Activity: Sarah falsely accuses her coworker, James, of drug use within the workplace, which leads to investigations and legal consequences for James.
Sabotaging Professional Relationships: Rachel intentionally spreads false information to undermine Alex’s professional relationships by claiming he spoke negatively about clients to partners.
Allegations of Discriminatory Behavior: Mark falsely claims that Amy engaged in discriminatory behavior and harassment against him, leading to an internal investigation and a hostile work environment.
False Claims of Mental Health Issues: Kelly and Daniel falsely assert that their coworker, Laura, has mental health issues and is unstable, causing her to be stigmatized and isolated by other employees.
These fictitious names help illustrate how defamation in the workplace can affect individuals and their interactions with colleagues.
Differences between Isolated Incidents and Pervasive Hostile Behavior in the Workplace
Isolated incidents refer to one-time occurrences or occasional or infrequent instances of discriminatory, inappropriate, or harassing behavior. These incidents are sporadic and do not continue over an extended period of time. Pervasive hostile behavior, on the other hand, involves ongoing or frequent instances of discriminatory, inappropriate, or harassing behavior. It typically continues over an extended period of time, resulting in a toxic and hostile work environment.
Impact of Hostile Work Environment on Work Performance
A hostile work environment can impact your work performance in many ways. These include:
- The constant stress, anxiety, and fear caused by a toxic work environment can lead to decreased productivity, as you might find it difficult to focus on your job and make mistakes that you otherwise might not.
- The emotional distress caused by a toxic workplace can cause you to miss deadlines, as you might struggle to meet your job-related demands while dealing with the effects of harassment or discrimination.
- A hostile environment can stifle your creativity and innovation. When there is a risk of potential backlash or mistreatment, you might be less inclined to share your ideas with others, take risks, or think outside the box to solve things.
- Being targeted, discriminated against, or harassed by your coworkers or your employer can result in a loss of motivation to excel at work. You might become disengaged and simply go through the motions to get by, which can be detrimental to your career growth.
Impact of Hostile Work Environment on Mental Health
- A hostile work environment can lead to chronic stress, which can adversely impact your mental health. Constantly worrying about interacting with your coworkers or reporting to your supervisor can be emotionally draining and make you feel anxious about going to work every day.
- The emotional distress caused by a hostile work environment can lead to depression, as a result of which you might experience feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and a loss of interest in activities that you normally enjoy.
- Targeted defamation, discrimination, and harassment in the workplace can erode your self-esteem and self-worth. It can also cause your colleagues to distance themselves from you, as they might be worried that they might be subjected to the same kind of harassment or discrimination if they associate with you. It can deepen your sense of isolation and alienation in the workplace, which in turn can make you feel even more depressed.
Impact of Hostile Work Environment on Physical Health
- Prolonged stress and emotional distress can manifest in the form of physical symptoms like headaches, muscle aches, digestive problems, loss of appetite, sleep disorders, mood swings, irritability, and a weakened immune system.
- Chronic stress is also linked to a number of diseases and disorders including hypertension, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and cardiovascular disease.
Hostile Work Environment – The Legal Options Available For You
While there is no specific hostile work environment law at the federal or state level, the discriminatory, inappropriate, and harassing behavior that contributes to a hostile work environment is prohibited under a number of federal as well as state laws. These include Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, The New York State Human Rights Law, and The New York City Human Rights Law.
If you are a victim of defamation-driven hostile work environment, you have the option to file a defamation claim as well as an anti-discrimination or anti-harassment claim against the at-fault party.
Steps Involved in Filing a Hostile Work Environment Claim in New York
- Document the incidents that you believe contribute to a hostile work environment. Be thorough in your record-keeping and make a note of details like date, time, location, individuals involved, witnesses, and a description of the at-fault party’s discriminatory, inappropriate, or harassing behavior. Save all the emails, memos, text messages, voice messages, and other evidence that can support your claim.
- Report the issue to the human resources department or the person specified in your company’s policies to report issues related to the hostile work environment.
- Once you file a complaint, your employer is required to conduct an internal investigation. Cooperate with the investigation and maintain a record of your interactions with the investigator.
- If the issue is not resolved by your company’s internal complaint resolution mechanism, talk to an experienced New York hostile work environment lawyer right away. Tell the lawyer about what you are being subjected to in the workplace and provide the evidence you have collected.
- After reviewing the details of your complaint, your lawyer will determine whether you have a legitimate case against your employer. If you do, your lawyer will determine the appropriate agency to file a complaint with. Depending on the laws your employer violated, it could be the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the New York State Division of Human Rights (NYSDHR), or the New York City Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR).
- Depending on the outcome of the investigation by the federal or state agency, your lawyer might choose to pursue legal action against your employer and other parties, if any.
The Role of the HR Department in Preventing and Addressing Hostile Behaviors in the Workplace
The HR department plays an extremely important role in preventing and addressing issues related to a hostile work environment. Its key functions include:
- Being the initial point of contact for employees who wish to report discriminatory, inappropriate, or offensive conduct in the workplace
- Investigating complaints of workplace defamation, discrimination, and harassment
- Taking disciplinary action and other corrective measures (in accordance with company policies and applicable federal, state, and local laws) to resolve the issues
- Establishing procedures to protect whistleblowers and victims of workplace harassment and discrimination from retaliation
- Developing policies to prohibit defamation, discrimination, and harassment in the workplace and to promote a culture of inclusivity
- Assessing workplace culture and taking steps to address issues that could potentially become problematic in the future
Importance of Reporting Workplace Defamation, Discrimination, and Harassment
- Reporting instances of defamation, discrimination, and harassment in the workplace is the first step in holding the perpetrators accountable. Failing to report these issues in a timely manner can unnecessarily complicate things and cause you more harm.
- Filing a report with the HR department or any other designated authority creates a legal record of the incidents, which can be critically important if legal action becomes necessary.
- Timely reporting of unwelcome incidents in the workplace can make it easier for your employer to nip these issues in the bud and maintain a safe and respectful workplace. The corrective measures taken by your employer can act as a deterrent and prevent such problems in the future.
- Reporting discriminatory and harassing behavior in the workplace can foster an environment where employees can express their concerns freely, respect each other, and work together to create an inclusive workplace.
How a New York Hostile Work Environment Lawyer Can Help You
An experienced New York hostile work environment lawyer can provide valuable assistance and guidance at various stages of a hostile work environment claim. These include:
- Your lawyer can examine the details of your case and the evidence you have and determine whether you have a case against your employer.
- Your lawyer can explain your rights as an employee and the legal options available for you. They can tell you whether you should settle, pursue legal action, or explore alternate dispute resolution methods.
- Your lawyer can develop a strategy to hold the perpetrators accountable for their unacceptable conduct and recover the damages you are entitled to under the law.
- Your lawyer can communicate with your employer (and other at-fault parties, if any) on your behalf, draft complaints, negotiate settlements, and represent your interests throughout the process.
- Your lawyer can protect you against retaliatory actions from your employer and take legal action if your employer takes any kind of adverse action against you.
Legal Help is Here from Experienced Hostile Work Environment Attorneys in New York
If you are being defamed, discriminated against, or harassed at work, the experienced New York employment attorneys at Levine & Blit can help you put an end to it. We can protect your rights as a worker, hold your employer accountable, and fight aggressively to get the compensatory relief you are entitled to.
We have extensive experience in handling hostile work environment claims and have a long and successful track record of recovering substantial damages for our clients. From racial discrimination claims to age discrimination claims, disability discrimination claims, sex discrimination claims, national origin discrimination claims, and workplace sexual harassment claims, we have handled all kinds of claims and have gotten results that few other law firms in New York can boast of.
Call us today at 646-461-6838 or get in touch with us online to schedule a Free Case Evaluation with one of our top-rated New York hostile work environment attorneys.