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Workplace Harassment Investigations Gone Wrong

Any form of workplace harassment should be taken seriously by employers. Unfortunately, I’ve seen my fair share of restaurant clients who haven’t taken harassment complaints seriously and ended up paying for it dearly — both culturally and legally!

So while these situations can be unpleasant for all involved, it’s up to employers to face each one head on to ensure that a fair and thorough investigation occurs.

Here’s how employers can unintentionally (and sometimes intentionally) impede or botch a harassment investigation.


Harassment By the Numbers

For those who think that workplace harassment doesn’t happen that often, let’s put it into perspective. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), more than 28,000 charges of harassment were reported during fiscal year 2016. This includes racial and sexual harassment, among others.

It not only happens often, it’s a costly process too. Settlements of $125.5 million were awarded during the same timeframe. And these were only the reported cases. It’s not far-fetched to assume that victims may have decided not to report violations, perhaps because of fear of retaliation or embarrassment.


Botched Investigations

There are a number of ways that employers can hinder harassment investigations, and as a result, create a laundry list of HR violations. Listed below are some common ways this happens as well as real-life case examples:


Ignoring complaints. This one is a biggie. Too often, employers may ignore complaints in the hopes that the issue will take care of itself once cooler heads prevail. Or they may assume it’s just not that serious. Unfortunately, there still can be a “boys will be boys” or “teens will be teens” kind of mentality (or any other number of harmful assumptions) among employers, leading them to inappropriately shrug off complaints.

Failure to take action in a timely fashion can lead to all sorts of trouble though. Besides legal consequences, it can also create a hostile company culture, especially when employees don’t feel valued or protected. Mint Julep Restaurant Operations LLC, an independent restaurant company and franchisee of Cheddars Casual Café, was ordered to pay a $450,000 settlement in 2016, due to their delay in properly addressing employees’ sexual harassment concerns.


Retaliating against or punishing accusers. If you want to create a culture in which employees can come to you with absolutely any issue or concern, including harassment, then retaliating or punishing those employees should never be the initial response — not to mention, retaliation is illegal. Each claim deserves the chance for undergo due process.

Unfortunately, retaliation still occurs. In 2012, the EEOC brought charges against a California restaurant chain, The Good Fork, when they terminated an employee who lodged sexual harassment complaints. The chain eventually was ordered to pay the employee a $20,000 settlement for the violation.


Having a male versus female mentality. Some employers still operate under a mistaken belief about harassment. They believe that it is only harassment if it involves a male versus female scenario, and frequently, default to assuming it only occurs as a male harassing a female.

What they don’t consider is that harassment doesn’t always fit inside this little box. Males can harass not only females, but also males. And vice versa — females can and do harass both females and males. In 2016, Achiote, a San Diego-based restaurant was ordered to pay a $27,500 settlement by the EEOC following charges of male-on-male sexual harassment in addition to retaliation.


Best Practices

These are just a few of the ways investigations may be hindered. While another future post will address the best practices for employers to follow in order to avoid these pitfalls, it’s always wise to do the following, at a minimum:

  1. Establish and enforce anti-harassment policies;
  2. Provide ongoing training;
  3. Organize standardized procedures for grievance reporting and conducting investigations; and
  4. Obtain legal counsel.

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