Sexual harassment and sexual orientation in the workplace

Friday, January 10, 2014

The law

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination is the oldest statewide anti-discrimination statute in the country. The Law bars discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, and business transactions, against an individual because of orientation due to affection or sex, atypical hereditary cellular or blood trait, age, ancestry, creed, color, civil union status, domestic partnership status, gender identity or expression, marital status, mental or physical disability, including HIV and AIDS, national origin, nationality, race, and sex.

Protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people has been provided since 1993 (“affectional or sexual orientation”) and since 2007 (“gender identity or expression”). In addition, the Law covers not only actual sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, but also perceived sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

The problem

Despite having one of the strongest and most inclusive anti-discrimination laws, many incidents of sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace still arise, according to a 2009 report by the Williams Institute. The following are just some examples:

  • In 2009, police officer Robert Colle was ridiculed by fellow officers because of his sexual orientation, including being denied back-up assistance when he apprehended a woman who bit his finger to the bone. He received a $415,000 settlement against a New Jersey town.
  • In 2008, lesbian police officer Sharon Whitmore was subject to “discriminatory, retaliatory or harassing conduct” by department officials. The town of Dover agreed to a $750,000 settlement.
  • Also in 2008, a gay public school bus driver reported that he was subjected to a hostile work environment and was fired.
  • In 2006, a lesbian New Jersey State Department employee reported that she was demoted and assigned tasks below her skill level.

One of the latest examples, according to LGBT Nation, last winter, when New Jersey native Theresa Kwiecinski filed a lawsuit against M&M-Mars, alleging she was fired because she is a lesbian. Following pregnancy complications in 2011 and the revelation of her sexual orientation, Kwiecinski alleges she was placed on an impossible-to-fulfill performance improvement plan, culminating in a wrongful termination.

The solution

Despite formal legal protection, the issue of discrimination because of sexual orientation has not gone away. If you have experienced sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace or another form of illegal harassment at work, contact an experienced employment law attorney who can review your circumstances and provide guidance going forward to protect your livelihood and dignity.