Tonight’s Special: Discrimination and Harassment with a Side Order of Retaliation

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A growing number of lawsuits alleging discrimination and harassment at some of the U.S.’s most famous restaurants have made headlines recently. To anyone who has worked in foodservice – front or back of house – this is not a recent phenomenon. Across all segments of the industry, allegations of discrimination and harassment are a daily challenge, which begs the question: why are managers, chefs and owner/operators still struggling with how to respond to, address, and resolve the allegations? Will there be lawsuits despite best efforts? Probably. Are best efforts actually always employed to address these issues? Unfortunately, not always.

A common reason why discrimination and harassment complaints often blossom from a problem to a catastrophe, is because of reactive handling. Instead, time should be taken to investigate a complaint in an objective, methodical, confidential and consistent manner. This means:

  • Investigating immediately, resolving in a timely manner and documenting each step taken – in a way that you would not mind seeing described in the media or in court.
  • Ensuring the “accuser” and the “accused” each get an opportunity to tell their side of the story and gossip is not tolerated.
  • Taking decisive and appropriate disciplinary action and following up periodically to ensure the steps taken were sufficient to prevent future, similar incidents.

How many of you (be honest, now) have had these knee-jerk reactions when listening to an employee allege this type of misconduct – even if you don’t voice it?

They’re exaggerating/overreacting.

They’re too sensitive/high maintenance.

Who would harass THEM?

… And these reactions about the “accused”?

They don’t mean anything by it – it’s just their personality.

They’re trouble, but also my best waiter/cook/chef/manager – what would I do without them?

I’m going to fire them immediately – I don’t have time for this!

… And these reactions about how to handle the issue?

I’ll just give them a warning, then I don’t have to follow up later because I told them to stop.

I’ll just fire them and tell the staff exactly why so it doesn’t happen again.

I’ll just fire them and not tell the staff anything at all.

A review of court documents and media statements made in high-profile restaurant suits related to discrimination and harassment show a clear trend: early decisions made based on these reactions exacerbated the problem. In cases where top management tolerated or participated in the behavior, larger penalties were levied, and the businesses met with greater media coverage and public outrage. In at least one case, outraged patrons and a (still pending) EEOC suit forced a restaurant to close its doors for good.

What’s the lesson here? Regardless of how sublime your cuisine, failing to address issues of this nature can negatively impact or even close your business. Outside of colorful characters on TV and Twitter, the days of throwing plates, barking orders and epithets, foul language and sexual innuendo without consequences are over.

Give your employees the tools they need to alert you to this type of problem and respond appropriately. It is, after all, your obligation to provide a safe and professional workplace environment for your employees. If you’re not sure what to do, there is plenty of guidance on responding to allegations of discrimination and harassment written by attorneys, HR professionals, and other experts that is readily available on the web, including our previous article “Eight Ways NOT to Respond to a Whistleblower Report.”