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November 4, 2011

HR Fact Friday: Restaurants and Sexual Harassment Claims

Filed under: Employment Law,Harrasment — Tags: , 9:22 am

Recent news stories have extensively detailed one of the current presidential candidate’s responses to sexual harassment allegations made against him when he worked at the National Restaurant Association a few years ago. These stories have triggered some related stories about possible problems of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry generally. One such news article suggests sexual harassment claims are fairly common in the restaurant industry, perhaps because, in the words of one expert, it’s a very collegial environment with a transient workforce, manager and employees often party together after work, and the industry is said to be very male dominated.   Click here for more on the story.

Indeed, a restaurant chain in North Dakota recently paid $1 million in settlements to 17 employees who alleged they had been the victim of sexual harassment while working.  Interestingly, this settlement required the employer to establish and distribute a policy prohibiting the viewing and dissemination of computer pornography or sexually-explicit material.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has brought a number of lawsuits against restaurants.  Both the EEOC and the industry also have tried to address another possible reason for such claims, i.e. that many restaurant workers are quite young as referenced in this link.  Whatever the causes or reasons for all these claims, these news stories are a timely reminder that restaurant employers must be especially vigilant to ensure there is nothing hot and spicy being served up beyond the great food on the menu.

When sexual harassment (and other discrimination claims) arise, the best cure remains prompt remedial action.  This point was demonstrated again by a recent ruling from the federal Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.  In this federal case, an administrative assistant accused a retired Kansas judge of sexual harassment. The court dismissed the claim because the state had in place a policy, distributed to all employees, that told them how to complain about problems and that required a prompt review/resolution of complaints.  In this case, the employer found the claim meritless, but in other cases courts also have declined to hold employers liable for misbehavior that the employer corrected as soon as it learned about it.

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