Ending sexual harassment: Implementing the right policies

By Guest Contributor on 8/30/2018

The food and hospitality industries are prime breeding grounds for sexual harassment to occur given the working environments, which may involve isolated quarters, late hours, ego-driven work such as a top culinary personality, and risk factors such as alcohol.

Part 2 of a two-part series by Janice Sued Agresti and Kevin Kraham, Littler

In the second of a two-part series (read part one here), we outline practices that hospitality companies can implement to ensure that their workplaces minimize and discourage the possibility of sexual harassment. 

Investigate employee allegations. When an employee makes an allegation of sexual harassment, it is important to immediately conduct an investigation. The goal of the investigation is to gather complete and accurate information by interviewing witnesses to help you assess whether the harassment occurred. During the interview, you should assess your witnesses’ firsthand knowledge of events—not rumors. It is a good idea to prepare your questions ahead of time and think strategically about the person you are interviewing and their personality, as well as your own.

Remember that discussing allegations of sexual harassment or assault can be uncomfortable, but you need to be able to discuss the topics that come up during your investigation with an open mind. Do not shy away from the facts.

Train your managers and staff. The EEOC’s Task Force Report stated that “effective training can reduce workplace harassment” and “ineffective training can be unhelpful or even counterproductive.” The EEOC also recognized that one size does not fit all when it comes to training. Training is most effective when tailored to the specific workforce and workplace, and to different groups of employees. Thus, you should treat training as an opportunity that is specifically tailored to your business. Set specific expectations for how your managers and staff will handle certain situations. Your training should teach your employees what to look for and what they should do in certain situations—both front-of-house and back-of-house staff. Multilingual training might be necessary to avoid language barriers.

Your training should focus on what employees should do, as opposed to what they cannot do. The goal should be to give your employees tools for their “toolbox” to deal with harassment effectively, such as simple intervention techniques (“did you really just say that?”), to good practices such as “the duty to report is in your hands” (and not assuming someone else will report). Training should be focused on civility, such as treating others how they would like to be treated.

Empower individuals to be truthful and come forward. Your worksite culture will play a large role in whether employees come forward or not. One way to foster this type of culture is to promote bystander intervention and uphold the expectations uniformly.

It is even better to empower individuals to spot potential harassment concerns before they occur by teaching your staff situational awareness. Situational awareness is of particular importance in the food and hospitality industries, which can involve late working hours, alcohol, isolated spaces, etc. Situational awareness was also highlighted in the EEOC’s Task Force Report, which noted that, for example, it would be of little comfort to victims of assault when an employer did not know harassment was occurring on the night shift, but did know that they worked in isolation and their schedules were controlled by men. In other words, teach your employees to spot potential areas of risk before issues arise.

Prohibit retaliation. When an employee makes a complaint or participates in an investigation, you should make it very clear that the employee will not be retaliated against. An additional layer of complexity in the food and hospitality industries is that potentially undocumented staff might feel pressure to remain quiet due to retaliation regarding visa status. Again, make your anti-retaliation policy clear, follow it consistently, and ensure that all of your staff follows it.

Prepare for the worst ahead of time. Work with your company's public relations staff to have pre-prepared press releases and social media messages ready to go in case allegations of sexual harassment occur.

It is never too late to update your policies and procedures. Consultation with counsel can be helpful in this process. 



Janice Sued Agresti is an associate in Littler’s Philadelphia office, where she advises and represents employers in labor and employment matters arising under both state and federal laws. Kevin Kraham is a shareholder in Littler’s Washington, D.C. office, where he represents employers in the hospitality industry in a wide range of employment and labor matters.

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