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The number of EEOC settlements and lawsuits involving restaurants so far in fiscal year 2019 spotlights the importance of restaurant businesses taking proactive steps to prevent sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation. 

The pervasive problem of workplace harassment affects all types of restaurants, from quick service to fine dining.  In a recent press release announcing a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and retaliation against a restaurant employee who rejected the repeated sexual advances of the manager/owner, an EEOC district director said, “Sexual harassment and retaliation for opposing sexual harassment are still far too common. Research shows that the cost of harassment and retaliation is incredibly high, as businesses lose valuable employees and productive workplaces when they condone discrimination.”

  • A fine-dining restaurant agreed to pay $80,000 and take other steps to settle a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit charging it permitted a work environment in which unwelcome, sexually charged comments and conduct were commonplace. The target of much of the harassment was a female bartender, who was repeatedly propositioned, told to dress “sexy” and described to restaurant customers as single and available to date them. When she complained, the owner fired her. 
  • A chain of breakfast franchises agreed to pay $700,000 to settle a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit, alleging female employees were sexually harassed by supervisors, managers and co-workers. The harassing behavior included groping, vulgar comments, propositions for sex, viewing pornography and unwanted touching and kissing. Rather than correct the situation, the management company retaliated against employees who complained by reducing their work hours and then firing them.
  • A restaurant group will pay $160,000 to settle a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit charging the group violated federal civil rights laws when it subjected two female servers to sexual harassment, and fired one of the women after she complained about the harassment and objected to employees referring to African-Americans by racial slurs.
  • The owner and operator of quick service restaurants agreed to pay $84,000 and provide other relief to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit involving sexual harassment of teenage female crew members. The lawsuit alleged the franchisee permitted a sexually hostile work environment that included sexually explicit comments and actions by an older male team leader. 

Implementing a comprehensive anti-harassment program can help restaurant owners, operators and managers reduce the risk of harassment and promote a safe, respectful workplace. The program should include:

Regular, interactive sexual harassment training
Given the unique working environment of restaurants, anti-harassment training should be tailored to the industry, with content, videos and other elements that are relevant and meaningful to foodservice employees and managers. Effective training focuses on encouraging positive behavior, raising awareness of the different types of sexual harassment, and providing practical steps for how to respond to incidents and prevent future ones. Teaching employees about bystander intervention, diversity and inclusion and unconscious bias should also be part of a well-designed training program.

For restaurants in California, New York, New York City, Connecticut, Illinois, Delaware and Maine new anti-harassment laws mean new training requirements to provide sexual harassment training to all employees. 

An anti-harassment policy
A written anti-harassment policy and code of conduct should clearly communicate to employees that sexual harassment and all forms of discrimination and harassment are unacceptable and illegal. Policies should explain the restaurant’s reporting procedures and the consequences for anyone who engages in harassment or fails to report it. Policies should also emphasize that individuals who speak up if they experience or observe harassment will be protected from retaliation from supervisors and co-workers. It’s also important that policies are kept up to date with federal, state and local laws and requirements. 

A formal complaint process
Implementing a formal complaint process that employees can easily use to report incidents and raise concerns sends a strong message that the restaurant takes complaints seriously and will promptly respond to and investigate all complaints.

Promoting a respectful, inclusive workplace culture
In addition to costly claims and lawsuits, a workplace in which sexual harassment occurs unchecked can negatively affect morale and productivity, customer service, brand reputation and recruitment and retention. Promoting respect, diversity and inclusion and cultural competency can help strengthen a restaurant’s workplace culture and be a competitive advantage.

The restaurant industry has long been challenged with how to address and prevent sexual harassment. Today, as a result of #MeToo, greater awareness and new state laws requiring sexual harassment training, restaurants have the opportunity and tools to create respectful, harassment-free workplaces. 

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