Truth be told, the restaurant industry was waiting to see who would take the fall. Bro culture has been an open secret in kitchens for years, the last bastion of bawdy behavior on the job. But with the deluge of #metoo stories sweeping the nation, it was only a matter of time before women in restaurants spoke up and spoke out. Employers: learn from the example of John Besh; take control of your corporate culture, or the court will do it for you.
Besh was accused by 25 women of fostering a culture of sexual harassment in his restaurants. The investigative report read like a script from Mad Men; there were affairs, abuses of power and workdays scheduled around a supervisor’s swimming pool that had female employees in bikinis and male employees in business suits. Unprofessional, to be sure. But in order to effectively put an end to sexual harassment, employers must first understand what it is, and what it is not.
Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination under Title VII. It can include any type of unwelcome sexual advances, including touching, requests for sexual favors and offensive remarks about a person’s gender. Both the victim and the harasser can be a man or a woman, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex. The harasser can be anyone in the workplace, from a supervisor to a client, and the victim can be either the person toward whom the conduct is directed or anyone else affected by the conduct.
What is not sexual harassment, is simple teasing or isolated incidents. Conduct only becomes illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile work environment, or when it results in adverse employment action, like firing or demoting the victim. What is also not harassment, is consensual sexual conduct. Workplace relationships are only illegal when they’re the product of coercion or a leverage of power for sexual opportunity.
Sexual harassment prevention starts at the top. Particularly in companies that lack HR personnel, it’s critical that owners and supervisors hold themselves to a high standard. Outline an anti-harassment policy in your handbook that establishes both a clear mechanism to report misconduct and includes alternative channels of reporting. Encourage employees to speak out without fear of retaliation and investigate every complaint quickly and thoroughly. Finally, take immediate and effective action to eliminate any source of harassment. Remember that as the employer, you are ultimately responsible for what you know or should know is happening in your workplace. Foster a culture of respect and accountability.