Workplace banter can add humor and a sense of community to a workplace. However, friendly banter and joking can quickly turn into harassment and discrimination. What should you do if you’ve overheard discriminatory comments about yourself or someone else at work? Discriminatory comments can include racist or sexist jokes, racial slurs, and other demeaning comments regarding someone’s race, sex, age, gender, or disability. 

If you’re concerned about overhearing discriminatory comments at work, the best thing you can do is speak with an experienced New York City employment lawyer. One or two off-handed comments likely won’t rise to the level of harassment. However, suppose there is a pattern of discriminatory comments. In that case, you may have the right to file a claim against your employer for unlawful discrimination or for creating a hostile work environment. Contact our law firm today to speak with a knowledgeable employment lawyer. 

When Do Discriminatory Comments Constitute Harassment?

Many of us have heard off-color jokes and banter around the water cooler at work. Not all discriminatory comments rise to the level of illegal harassment, however. Isolated comments, petty slights, and annoying comments are usually not illegal in the workplace unless they are severe. The discriminatory comments must rise to the level of being intimidating, offensive to reasonable people, or hostile. Discriminatory comments can include all of the following: 

  • Racial slurs
  • Name-calling
  • Threats of violence
  • Intimidation
  • Mockery
  • Offensive jokes
  • Racial epithets
  • Ridicule
  • Insults
  • Insults

Who Can File a Hostile Work Environment Claim?

Workplace harassment via discriminatory comments can happen in every industry and workplace. The harasser could be the employee’s direct manager or supervisor, a supervisor in another division of the company, a co-worker, an agent of the employer, or someone who is not an employee but does work in the same building or area. 

Many people assume that the victim is always the person being harassed with discriminatory comments. However, the victim can be anyone who’s been affected by the discriminatory comments. For example, if an employee continually overhears a manager making discriminatory comments based on another employee’s race, he or she could have a valid claim against the employer. 

Employees who overhear discriminatory comments that rise to the level of harassment don’t need to prove that they’ve personally experienced an economic injury to file a claim. Additionally, the person submitting the claim against the employer doesn’t need to prove that the person targeted by the comments has suffered an economic injury. 

Examples of Discriminatory Comments That Constitute Harassment

Sharing a crude joke about people of a certain race or sex will likely not be considered illegal under federal and local civil rights laws. Federal courts are still trying to determine exactly which type of comments constitute unlawful harassment. One U.S. District Court ruled that a company violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when co-workers directed racial slurs at an employee and targeted him with racially-based graffiti. The company agreed to pay $4 million to 74 employees who experienced a hostile work environment. Co-workers had sprayed graffiti and made comments calling the employees “boy” and using the N-word.

In another case, the Fifth Circuit of Appeals ruled that oral racial abuse experienced by an oil rig worker didn’t constitute harassment. The Court found that pranks and practical jokes are not considered harassment. The court ruled that since black and white employees were the targets of racially derogatory and obscene remarks, the employer was not liable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Filing a Discrimination Lawsuit

New York City employers must maintain a working environment for their employees that is free from racial intimidation. They must have a means through which they can address and eliminate employee intimidation. When racial slurs are excessive and when there is a clear harassment pattern, a court will likely rule that the employer has violated federal anti-discrimination laws. In other words, when an employee has been subjected to ongoing discriminatory comments, and the managers of the company fail to take action to prevent the discriminatory comments, the employee may be able to recover under federal and state anti-discrimination laws.

An employer’s discriminatory comments may seem off-handed at times, but they could prove to be unlawful discrimination. Employees cannot discriminate against job applicants and employees based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Additionally, employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities and cannot discriminate against them. Employers are aware that discrimination is illegal, and they’ve become savvier when trying to hide discriminatory decisions regarding hiring, firing, and promoting employees. 

Proving Discrimination With an Employer’s Comments

Employers will often try to deny that they’ve engaged in discrimination, but their comments could show their intent to discriminate based on race, sex, color, religion, or national origin. For example, suppose a female employee has just been demoted after having a baby, then hears her supervisor say that mothers who take maternity leave “don’t deserve to get anywhere” up the corporate ladder. The employer’s comment could help prove his intent to discriminate based on sex. 

Proving discrimination can be difficult, and when an employer makes discriminatory comments, it’s important to document them. Testifying as to an employer’s comments could help you prove that the employer violated federal, state, or local anti-discrimination laws. 

Contact an Experienced Employment Discrimination Attorney Today

There are multiple federal, state, and local New York City laws prohibiting workplace harassment and discrimination. These laws give victims a right to file a claim against their employer and obtain damages. Employers are liable for harassment by their employees who knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take appropriate and prompt action to stop it. If you’ve suffered harassment or you’ve been discriminated against, you need an experienced lawyer. Contact Lipsky Lowe LLP today to schedule your initial consultation.