Workplace harassment is unlawful in New Jersey under the Law Against Discrimination (LAD) if the conduct is hostile, intimidating or abusive and based on a “protected characteristic” such as race, gender, sexual orientation, age, ethnicity, religion, national origin, color or sex. But if the conduct would have occurred regardless of the protected characteristic, then there is no violation of the law.
A victim has other rights, though, when New Jersey criminalized cyber-harassment. This is a separate and distinct crime that targets online communications intended to harm, annoy, or threaten another person. Cyber-harassment updates traditional laws that cover letters and telephones as tools of abuse to cover electronic devices and the Internet. It is generally a fourth degree indictable crime, which could result in maximum penalties of 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. It is a third degree offense when the person committing it is 21 years of age or older but pretends to be a minor to cyber-harass a minor. That carries a penalty of 3 to 5 years in jail and a fine of up to $15,000. So if workplace harassment by online or electronic communications does not “qualify” as hostile work environment under the LAD, it can still result in penalties under the cyber-harassment law.
As for an employer’s responsibilities to protect themselves and their workers from unlawful conduct, while they do not have to monitor the private communications of their employees, they can still be held liable for supervisor or co-worker harassment if they knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take prompt action to stop it in the workplace. Business owners would be smart to monitor their employees’ electronic and Internet use on the job and putting in place company policies to deal with situations when any type of harassment is reported. With the collaboration of Kieu-Nhi Le, Rutgers School of Law Newark candidate for a JD degree in May 2016. She is the Managing Business Editor of the Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal.