Employees within the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office could face serious disciplinary action as a result of a workplace complaint investigation conducted by an outside law firm in response to unlawful employee conduct. The investigation was prompted by a series of offensive social media posts shared by Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office employees, posted on Facebook and within their internal workplace messaging app, “Slack”.
Under New Jersey law, employers must maintain an effective policy against unlawful harassment and discrimination at the workplace. With an effective anti-harassment policy in place, harassment investigations may shield an employer from hostile work environment claims under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination is one of the nation’s strongest legal protections for employee civil rights against discrimination and threats of harassment, including sexual harassment. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination requires employers to investigate all complaints of harassment and discrimination promptly, thoroughly and completely.
Serious hostile work environment concerns emerged at the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office after racist jokes’ and offensive social media comments raised tensions amongst assistant prosecutors. In March 2021, the initial internal investigation began with an examination of Assistant Prosecutor Bill Specht and Agent Kelly Sisk over “offensive and sickening” posts the two allegedly made on social media and shared via Slack. Screenshots from March 2021, were shared of Specht’s conversations within the workplace Slack chatroom, writing that “Infoshare identifies as Mexican. It sleeps when the sun is hottest.” Specht additionally shared a number of racially offensive Facebook posts, following the police killing of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake. These posts alluded to the exoneration of law enforcement officials in officer-involved shootings, an especially controversial subject for someone in his position.
However, an internal investigation found no instances of harassment or discrimination, and it was believed that no action would be taken regarding these online comments. Yet, following the internal investigation, the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office spokesperson stated that “appropriate disciplinary action is pending” for an unspecified number of employees. During the internal investigation, Specht was stripped of all supervisory and prosecutorial powers; it is unclear if any of his prior powers have been returned while the external investigation continues. Subsequently, the use of Slack as an official business platform is now forbidden within the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office, and their spokesperson noted that the ongoing investigation will look into the abuse of the platform, specifically “who else utilized the platform and what other comments may have been made.”
New Jersey employers have an obligation to investigate all complaints of unlawful harassment or discrimination, including race, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation and disability. This obligation is still required whether or not those complaints were made in writing or prompted by something else. Complaints that prompt investigations might include instances of sexual harassment, misconduct, ethical violations or workplace violence. Additionally, an employer has an obligation to conduct an investigation for any claim of unlawful harassment or discrimination of which the employer knows or should know occurred at the workplace. While harassment investigations are often brought on by an employee’s initial complaint, an investigation can be required following an informal comment of dissatisfaction or with an objection to the inappropriate behavior of a co-worker or supervisor.
New Jersey employers have a responsibility to take remedial measures in response to a report or complaint of misconduct. Employers need to provide periodic, ongoing training to supervisory staff regarding their anti-harassment and anti-discriminatory responsibilities. Supervisory staff, at a minimum, should be trained on what types of conduct will violate the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, the severity of the employer’s unique company policy, the prohibition of retaliation against anyone involved in the investigation, and their responsibilities upon becoming aware of New Jersey Law Against Discrimination violations.
The Hudson County Prosecutor’s office has declined to respond to questions asking how many employees could be disciplined, or what that discipline might look like. Although, the office has affirmed that any punishment would occur “in consultation with the county Law Department.” Their spokesperson publicly stated, “the comments on social media were offensive and sickening and have no place in our society or the workplace.”