woman dealing with workplace harassment

In Focus: Nonsexual Harassment in the Workplace

By Douglas Lipsky

While sexual harassment in the workplace remains a pervasive problem in New York and across the nation, nonsexual harassment is another type of unlawful discrimination under federal, state, and local law. Ultimately, the best way for employees to fight back against discrimination and harassment is to consult with an experienced employment law attorney.

What is Non-Sexual Harassment?

Non-sexual harassment involves unwelcomed physical or verbal conduct that is based on a wide range of legally protected characteristics including such as race, color, religion, national origin, age (40 and over), and disability or other characteristics protected under the law. 

A single incident or offhand remark typically does not constitute nonsexual harassment. Instead, the conduct or comments must be severe or pervasive enough to interfere with the victim’s ability to perform his or her job. This is referred to as a hostile work environment. Examples of conduct that may create such an environment include:

  • Inappropriate jokes
  • Offensive visual displays
  • Insults/epithets (e.g. the “N” word)
  • Ridicule/mockery
  • Intimidation/threats

In particular, nonsexual harassment can occur when someone makes comments, gestures, or displays that offend a member of a protected class. Whether the comments are made by coworkers, supervisors, vendors or customers, nonsexual harassment is a breach of the victim’s civil rights. Additionally, nonsexual harassment can occur when an employer takes an adverse employment action (e.g. firing, demoting, reassigning) against the worker based on a protected characteristic.

By contrast, if your manager is an equal opportunity jerk who harasses everyone, regardless of any protected status, it is unlikely any laws are being violated.  

Do I have a valid nonsexual harassment claim?

If you believe you have been a victim of nonsexual harassment, your attorney must be able to demonstrate that (1) you were subjected to offensive comments or conduct because of your status as a member of a protected class and (2) the harassment interfered with your performance or created a hostile work environment.

A successful claim hinges on an extensive investigation in which your attorney will obtain and review employment records, identify and interview witnesses, and gather other evidence, such as pictures, writings, and other displays. As an example, placing a noose in the locker of an African American worker would constitute a hostile work environment.

Ultimately, the key factors in determining whether a work environment was hostile include:

  • The frequency and severity of the conduct
  • The extent to which the conduct was offensive or threatening

Finally, anti-discrimination laws prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who complain about nonsexual harassment. Retaliation may be overt (demotion, negative evaluation, pay cut) or subtle, involving hostile attitudes adopted by supervisors or coworkers toward the victim. 

Why This Matters

All workers in New York and across the nation have a right to a workplace free of harassment and discrimination. If you have been subjected to nonsexual harassment, it takes a skilled employment lawyer to protect your rights.

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.