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Understanding employer liability in sexual harassment cases

New Jersey employees may be interested in some information on sexual harassment and what makes an employer liable. Depending on the perpetrator of the harassment and the corrective actions of the employer, the answer may vary.

According to the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, sexual harassment at work is defined as uninvited conduct that is sexual in nature or sexual advances that make an employee's work environment hostile or offensive to that employee. The conduct could also intimidate the employee or make performing work-related tasks difficult. Employees are protected against sexual harassment by both federal and state laws. When a company is staffed by less than 15 employees, they are exempt from the federal statute, but state law will still apply.

Depending on the party committing the harassment, the standard of liability differs. When an employee's co-worker is the harasser, an employer is only liable when they know or should have known that the harassment was taking place. The employer may be able to escape liability by taking immediate action to correct the co-worker's behavior. When an employee's superior is the person committing the harassment, and there is some kind of employment-based action that takes place such as firing the harassed employee or changing their work duties, the employer may be liable. The employer may also be liable when the supervisor creates a hostile work environment but may negate this liability by taking immediate corrective action.

Understanding whether or not an employee has an actionable case against their employer may be difficult without the guidance of an attorney. The attorney may be able to assist in a sexual harassment or wrongful termination situation either by filing a claim with the appropriate administrative body or by bringing a lawsuit in civil court.

Source: Findlaw, "Employer Liability", December 17, 2014

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