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Eradicating your #MeToo Moments at Work

More than 85,000 charges have been filed with the EEOC from 2005 to 2015. Only half of those charges have included industry-specific information.

The names have been in the headlines. John Besh, Mario Batali, Ken Friedman, Steve Wynn, Mike Isabella. All prominent, powerful men in the restaurant and hospitality industry and all accused of sexual harassment or misconduct over the past six months.

Then there was the Vox investigation, which reported on sexual harassment complaints made to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and zeroed in on the restaurant industry and franchise chains Applebee’s and IHOP. 

An analysis from the Center for American Progress notes at least 5,000 sexual harassment complaints were filed by hotel and restaurant workers from 2005 to 2015—more than any other industry. And, because only about half of the 85,000 sexual harassment complaints were made to the EEOC during that designated time frame, for that industry, the number likely represents only a small portion of complaints filed by restaurant workers.

In the Vox investigation, Applebee’s and IHOP emerged as having the highest number of federal sexual assault lawsuits during that time frame—four each against individual franchise owners. Both brands are 100 percent franchised and owned by Dine Brands Global, which isn’t named as a defendant but commented that, “Harassment of all nature has no place in any organization, including those affiliated with Dine Brands Global.”

In an email from Thien Ho, Dine Brands’ global spokesperson, Ho said each franchisee “establishes and adheres to their own strict policies against harassment in the workplace and we expect them to follow all local and federal laws. Additionally, our brands are guided by core values. While our franchisees have a strong track record of doing the right thing, failure to adhere to those values carries consequences, up to and including the termination of their franchise agreement.”

In response to the issue of harassment in the restaurant industry, Ho said Dine Brands has “provided training resources franchisees can use in their restaurants, including third-party e-learning tools customized for the restaurant industry.” 
Power dynamic in play

Applebee’s and IHOP aren’t alone in their struggle to deal with sexual harassment in the restaurant industry, an industry where men hold the majority of management and higher-paying jobs, while 71 percent of servers are women who are almost three times more likely to be paid below the poverty line than the general workforce, according to a report from Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. It’s this power dynamic, coupled with a culture where “the customer is always right,” that can lead to the normalization of sexual harassment or create an environment where it’s simply ignored. 

Ignoring sexual harassment isn’t an option, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement and “this new call-out culture,” noted Dori Larison, an attorney at Gray Plant Mooty with a focus on employment law.

While the laws surrounding sexual harassment haven’t changed, “there’s a lower level of tolerance for bad behavior,” said Larison, and operators need to not just adopt but enforce a written anti-harassment policy that gives employees multiple reporting options “so they can talk to who they’re most comfortable with.”

“The supervisor could be the harasser,” said Larison, so employees need other avenues to report incidents. Allegations must be responded to promptly and operators should have independent legal counsel to guide them through the process and take the appropriate action.

Undertaking an investigation of sexual harassment allegations without proper legal guidance is perhaps the biggest mistake a restaurant operator can make, said Jeff Neely, a multi-unit operator of brands such as Old Chicago and Bennigans.

“Don’t pretend you know what you’re doing if you don’t,” said Neely, CEO of Michigan-based Inspired Concepts Management. “Before you start an investigation, if you aren’t familiar with what to ask or how to do it, go find someone who is, because if you botch an investigation it can come back on you.”  

Neely, who previously held several roles with Red Robin, including its chief people officer, said Inspired Concepts has a zero-tolerance policy covering all types of sexual harassment, from physical to verbal—“These are the appearance comments, something like, ‘You look hot today’”—to nonverbal actions such as sexually suggestive whistling. 

Every restaurant has a contact list for reporting incidents, and Neely noted complaints can also be brought directly to him or made through an HR hotline.

Inspired Concepts holds annual harassment training and just a few months ago did a refresher course as a way to address the current discourse on the topic.

“Our people hear about it on the outside and so we bring it up to our GMs—here’s what’s going on in the world and here’s why we’re talking about it,” said Neely. Training a must 

Instead of training and educating workers from the outset, most business owners don’t seek out an employment law attorney or human resources professional until a sexual harassment complaint is made, said attorney Zaylore Stout.

“Training often gets put on the back burner,” said Stout, of Minneapolis-based employment law firm Zaylore Stout & Associates, but that’s not where it belongs.

“If an employer wants to take this seriously, they need to sit down and talk about it,” he continued. Stout worked in the outsourced HR field for 12 years before law school and continues to advise small businesses—including restaurants—on sexual harassment prevention training. He noted a big fear among employers is that a flood of complaints will follow any harassment training but stressed that’s not a bad thing.

“Yes, that’s a good thing because they can address this in-house, which is much better than getting a call from a plaintiff’s attorney,” said Stout.

Other best practices include having a complaint procedure in place that articulates not just who will handle the issue and how but also is clear the employee won’t face retaliation for making the complaint.

“Fear of retaliation is the No. 1 reason people don’t file these complaints,” said Stout, adding it’s up to the employer to provide “continuous and constant reassurance to employees” that any harassment complaints will be taken seriously and handled promptly.

Employers should also consider adding employment practices liability insurance to their standard coverage, said Stout, to protect their business against claims of harassment, discrimination, wrongful termination and other employment-related lawsuits.

“Defending an employment lawsuit isn’t cheap,” he pointed out, so businesses “really, really need to think about” adding that insurance coverage.

Much of the focus in restaurant HR polices is on sexual harassment within the company—employee to employee or manager to employee—and less on dealing with incidents involving customers. At Homeroom, a restaurant in Oakland, California, chef and co-founder Erin Wade didn’t want to rely on managers—usually men—making a judgment call on complaints about customers by female servers. She and her staff created a color-coded system to identify and respond to different types of customer behavior, a system she detailed in a Washington Post op-ed titled, “I’m a female chef. Here’s how my restaurant dealt with harassment from customers.”

Yellow signals a “creepy vibe or unsavory look” and when reported gives the staff member the option to have a manager take over the table. Orange means comments with sexual undertones and requires the manager to take over service to that table. Red signals “overtly sexual comments or touching” and if reported that customer is ejected from the restaurant.

“The color system is elegant because it prevents women from having to relive damaging stories and relieves managers of having to make difficult judgment calls about situations that might not seem threatening based on their own experiences. The system acknowledges the differences in the ways men and women experience the world, while creating a safe workplace,” wrote Erin Wade.

At Inspired Concepts, Neely said it comes down to creating a culture where employees have respect for one another and values of honesty and integrity start at the top.

The spotlight on sexual harassment isn’t dimming and restaurant brands are under increasing pressure to not just address but root out harmful behavior in their organizations—or risk their names being in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. 

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