Home / Restaurant Management and Operations / Tips from a Lawyer: Sexual Harassment and Title VII Violations

Tips from a Lawyer: Sexual Harassment and Title VII Violations

It’s a shame to hear about the inexcusable sexual assault allegations recently hitting the news.

But it’s even more of a shame that a lot of people already knew about it and simply let it continue.

Sadly for many, the news of these transgressions was not surprising, nor was it specific to one single industry. Far from being immune, it was only a matter of time until allegations within the foodservice industry became published, as commercial kitchens have always been notorious offenders—notorious, because everyone seems to be aware of rampant harassment and no one ever wants to do anything about it. The so-called “toxic kitchen” culture is hardly a surprise to most who has ever worked in a restaurant, and has even been referenced as a means of weeding out the labor pool because some just wouldn’t be able to cut it in that environment. (Though given the labor crisis the foodservice industry is facing now, it’s more important than ever to cultivate a supportive and, more importantly, safe environment to work in.)

And amidst all this, I’m still wrapping my head around the defense of one restaurant owner who claimed to be unaware of a space above her restaurant dubbed as the “rape room” in recent allegations. Seriously?

But there is hope in all of this. Not all commercial kitchens have so-called toxic environments, and you do have control over what happens in your restaurant. To echo the sentiment of Anthony Bourdain’s latest commencement address to new graduates, “The quality of life has to, has to, improve,” he says “As chefs, as leaders, as employers we are going to have to address this in a serious way.”

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A Little Lesson About Law

Sexual harassment has long been outlawed in this country. Formally addressed in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this law is designed to protect individuals in all industries from discrimination, harassment and retaliation.

Todd Fredrickson of Fisher & Phillips LLP recently spoke on this topic at the recent Colorado Restaurant Show during his session title “Sex, Drugs and Tip Pooling” (a title he admittedly chose to pique interest and get butts in the seats—it worked). Creating a safe environment is one you should do simply because it’s the right thing to do. But,if ethics alone won’t get you there, then consider your pocketbook. Title VII violations can come with hefty court costs, lawyer fees, and damages.

Do I have your attention now? Let’s get started:

1. Create, Post, Distribute and Communicate an Anti-Discrimination Policy

First things first, you need a printed Anti-Discrimination and Harassment Policy. If you’re starting from scratch, first do a search online for a basic template that you can work from (it’ll save you a lot of time). Having a clear policy in place outlines your stance on what is considered appropriate and inappropriate behavior, and can protect yourself should the case go to court. Consider a zero-tolerance policy on anything to do with Title VII violations.

That said, simply having a policy in place isn’t enough. Be sure to print and distribute copies of your policy. Fredrickson strongly recommends having employees sign a receipt of acknowledgement stating that they’ve received one. Also post your policy in a public location (like a bulletin board in the breakroom) so employees always have access to it.

Communicating your policy to employees is more than just making it available. Consider annual or semi-annual group and individual policy reviews to ensure that all employees are aware of what is considered acceptable and unacceptable behavior. One-on-one meetings ensure that employees have the opportunity to discuss concerning issues with you. Conduct regular training with managers on the policy so they know what signs to look for and how to act accordingly when presented with a complaint.

2. Take Complaints Seriously and Conduct a Prompt Investigation

One of the worst things you can do when facing an allegation of harassment is to ignore it. Not only would I question your moral compass, but this behavior can open you up to liability in court. When faced with any complaint, take it seriously, no matter how valid you think the complaint is. In fact, countless studies have proven that only 2-6% of all allegations reported are proven to be false. Conduct interviews with the accuser and accused (separately), and any other character witnesses who might have more information to share. Keep your investigation confidential, and once you’ve reached a conclusion communicate the course of action to your accuser and accused (separately). If you find that harassment has indeed occurred, take steps tailored to that situation. Frederickson stresses that while termination is not required, be careful of minimizing the consequences that might appear to trivialize the situation.

3. Enforce Your Policy

“Say what you do and do what you say.”

It’s a little ridiculous that this needs to be stated, but given industry leaders like restaurant owners, chefs, producers and news anchors seemingly condemn this behavior on camera only to be guilty of it for decades makes one seriously question their integrity. (Seriously Lauer, how did you criticize those guilty of harassment all these years with a straight face?)

Creating a safe environment where harassment isn’t tolerated starts with you. Treat employees respectfully and shut down any behavior or attitudes that aren’t in line with your company policies. It really just boils down to one simple rule: Just don’t be an asshole, OK?

About Natalie Fauble

Natalie Fauble is the Online Marketing Manager - Content & SEO for Tundra Restaurant Supply. As a digital marketer with a passion for the restaurant industry, Natalie helps companies shape their brand through thoughtful, fun and innovative content strategies. When she isn't blogging for Tundra Restaurant Supply you can find her in her vegetable garden or in the kitchen whipping up one of her favorite dishes.

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