In March of 2021, YouGov and Otter.ai released the results of a study conducted into various issues relating to employees who have been working at least partially from home since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The study found that 43% of remote workers miss “water cooler chats” and “office chatter.” Since the results of this study were released, New Jersey has seen and will likely continue to see more and more employees returning from virtual workplaces to in-person work settings. Based upon this study, employers can expect that a significant portion of these employees are quite eager to get back to socializing with co-workers about non-work-related issues. Employers must recognize that the water cooler talk that employees will engage in these days will very likely be much different from the discussions that were occurring when COVID-19 first stuck in March of 2020. Many of these discussions could lead to claims of a hostile work environment under the federal and state anti-harassment laws.
It is known that litigation can arise from workplace discussions about matters that are happening in an employee’s day-to-day life and/or things being seen in the media. Some may recall the civil lawsuit from the 1990s that arose from an incident where a female employee complained about a male co-worker who had discussed with her at work an episode of the television show Seinfeld that had sexual connotations. For those not familiar with the lawsuit or Seinfeld, it was an episode where the main character (Jerry Seinfeld) tries to remember a girlfriend’s name that rhymes with a female body part. The lawsuit not only gained a lot of publicity, but in July of 1997, it resulted in a jury awarding the plaintiff in the case $26.6 million in damages.