Harassment vs. Discrimination: Understanding the Difference in NYC

By Douglas Lipsky

Understanding the distinction between harassment and discrimination—both forms of unlawful discrimination—is crucial. While they often intertwine, each carries its unique legal definitions and implications. Let’s explore the difference between harassment and discrimination and how you can explore your rights. 

Defining Workplace Harassment

Harassment in the workplace goes beyond mere inconvenience or annoyance; it constitutes unwelcome conduct based on a protected characteristic such as race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), nationality, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information:  

  • Sexual Harassment: Includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
  • Racial Harassment: Encompasses derogatory comments, jokes, or physical actions based on an individual’s race or ethnicity.
  • Disability Harassment: Involves offensive remarks about a person’s disability.

Such conduct behavior becomes unlawful when enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment or when the conduct creates a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. 

While harassment is often associated with supervisors and co-workers, it can involve third parties such as vendors, customers, and clients. Understanding these nuances is essential for recognizing harassment and taking the necessary steps to address it.

What Is Discrimination?

Discrimination in the workplace is the unfair treatment of employees or job applicants based on specific protected characteristics rather than their merits or abilities. These characteristics include, but are not limited to:

  • Race and Color: Treating someone unfavorably because of their skin color or racial characteristics.
  • Sex and Gender Identity: Includes discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy.
  • Age: Specifically targeting those 40 years old or older.
  • Disability: Discriminating against individuals with physical or mental disabilities includes failing to provide reasonable accommodations.
  • Religion: Unfair treatment due to religious beliefs, practices, or requests to accommodate religious practices.

Discrimination can affect various aspects of employment, from hiring and firing to promotions, job assignments, training, benefits, and any other term or condition of employment.

Key Legal Differences 

Understanding the legal distinctions between harassment and discrimination is paramount in navigating workplace disputes. While both are forms of unlawful discrimination, they differ significantly in scope and legal ramifications. Harassment typically involves specific, targeted behaviors that create a hostile or abusive work environment, whereas discrimination encompasses broader patterns of unfair treatment based on protected characteristics. 

Legally, harassment requires evidence of offensive conduct, while discrimination can be proven through disparate treatment or impact. Recognizing these nuances is essential for effectively addressing workplace injustices and pursuing appropriate legal recourse. An attorney specializing in employment law can provide invaluable guidance in navigating these complexities and advocating for justice in the workplace.

How an Attorney Can Help Address Discrimination and Harassment

If you are facing discrimination or harassment in the workplace, turn to an experienced employment attorney for support and guidance. An attorney can help navigate these issues’ intricate legal frameworks, offering invaluable advice on rights, remedies, and legal proceedings. They can also assist in documenting instances of discrimination or harassment, strategizing effective responses, and advocating for fair treatment through negotiation or litigation.

Furthermore, attorneys can help victims of discrimination and harassment assert their rights and seek justice. They provide a voice for victims, ensuring their grievances are heard and addressed appropriately. With their knowledge and advocacy, attorneys hold perpetrators accountable and contribute to fostering a culture of respect and equality in the workplace.

Lipsky Lowe is a dedicated ally in confronting discrimination and harassment in the workplace, compassionate support and informed legal guidance. Our team is dedicated to advocating for your rights and fostering positive workplaces. Contact us today to take a stand against discrimination and harassment and ensure a future of dignity and respect for all.

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.