COMMENTARY

Lessons from #MeToo: Top tips to avoid harassment in the fast casual workplace

Lessons from #MeToo: Top tips to avoid harassment in the fast casual workplace

By Janet Hendrick, partner in the office of national employment law firm Fisher Phillips

Hollywood. Venture capital. Media. Fine dining empires. No industry is immune from employee allegations of sexual harassment. The lessons of the past several months are loud and clear: workers should not have to work in a toxic environment and the time for change is now.  This post outlines steps fast casual management can take to eradicate workplace harassment.

Statistically, fast casual restaurants are at high risk for harassment. These establishments tend to employ young workers and a larger number of men than women, both of which are factors that increase the chance of workplace harassment.  Add alcohol consumption and the pressure cooker of a restaurant environment, and you get a recipe for potential trouble. According to a Restaurant Opportunities Centers United report, while only 7 percent of American women work in the restaurant industry, more than one third — 37 percent —of all sex harassment claims to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency tasked with enforcing most federal employment laws, come from the restaurant industry.  Forty percent of women in the fast food industry report facing sexual harassment on the job, according to a 2016 national survey.  

With the pervasive discussion of #MeToo, internal complaints of bad treatment by lower-paid female restaurant workers have sharply risen. Beginning in September 2017, the EEOC filed a series of discrimination suits against multiple restaurant franchises alleging that male managers and chefs created toxic work environments replete with groping young female waitresses, pressuring them for sex and brushing off complaints to supervisors, who are allegedly complicit in the harassment.

The good news: these best practices will go a long way to turn the tide. Let’s start with what may be the most important point:  change must start at the top. That’s why the EEOC emphasizes leadership and accountability in its most recent report on workplace harassment avoidance.  If the top brass turns a blind eye to harassing conduct and complaints, the message to team members is that this conduct is condoned and complaints will be ignored.

Best Practice one: Leadership and accountability. We start with what may be the most important point: change must start at the top. That’s why the EEOC emphasizes leadership and accountability in its most recent report on workplace harassment avoidance. If the top brass turns a blind eye to harassing conduct and complaints, the message to team members is that this conduct is condoned and complaints will be ignored.

Best Practice two: Implement or update written policies prohibiting harassment and retaliation for complaining of harassment.  Policies reflect leadership’s commitment to stop harassment.  Good policies should include multiple ways to report harassment.  A policy that allows reporting harassment to only the immediate supervisor is ineffective when that supervisor is the alleged harasser.  Many employers allow employees to report concerns to a supervisor, human resources, an internal ethics website and/or hotline and upper management. The policy should also make clear that restaurant management will not retaliate against any employee who makes a good faith harassment report.

Best Practice three: Conduct regular (annual or as budgets otherwise allow) anti-harassment training.  Policies without training won’t get the job done. Lack of training has been linked to a toxic work culture and increased risk of bad behavior. Three states – California, Connecticut and Maine — require anti-harassment training and this number is likely to rise in coming years. The most effective training is in-person, rather than online or video. The EEOC takes the position that online training is not effective. Live training by a third party, such as employment counsel or professional trainers, allows attendees to ask questions and brainstorm scenarios and requires attendees to be active throughout the training session. Many employers train both managers and rank-and-file employees, which allows discussion about what constitutes harassment, how to raise a complaint and how to respond to a complaint.  Meaningful training shows team members the importance leadership places on a positive, productive work environment.  It can also provide a defense to a restaurant faced with a harassment claim, if the employer had an anti-harassment policy and took steps to investigate and address complaints.  

Best Practice four: When a team member complains, act promptly. Let the complaining party know you take his or her concerns seriously and that after an investigation, management will take appropriate disciplinary action. Investigate, with the help of outside counsel or other support as needed.  Thorough investigations include interviews of the complaining team member, witnesses and employees who may have relevant information.  It may be necessary to separate the alleged victim from the alleged harasser while you complete the investigation. Depending on the circumstances, it may be advisable to suspend an employee during the investigation. Remember: one size does not fit all. But a prompt, thorough investigation will result in the best outcome.

Best Practice five:  Follow up with the team member who raised the concern to let the employee know the conclusion from the investigation —specifically, whether or not you found the complaint to have merit and warrant discipline. Ultimately, fostering a culture of respect and civility, an environment that team members look forward to working in rather than dreading, can prevent harassment. The time to act is now.

Cover photo: iStock 


Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability


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