Harassment – It’s Not Just For Supervisors Anymore!
From time immemorial, the restaurateur has held to the adage that the customer is always right. But what if the customer is wrong by grossly misbehaving toward your employees? Employees always have to be polite and helpful to customers, but they don’t have to tolerate unwelcome flirtation, verbal abuse or physical injury. Most business owners are familiar with the idea of eliminating harassment between supervisors and subordinates in the workplace; however, it is important to protect your employees from harassment in all its forms, which can come from anyone with whom they interact while performing their work duties. In a restaurant setting, once you throw alcohol into the mix with harassing customers, difficult situations can escalate quickly.
Deciding when a particular customer’s behavior crosses the line and makes for a hostile work environment may be a judgment call; however: "Once an employer is put on notice that any of its employees are being subjected to sexual harassment, it must take prompt corrective action to stop it," according to Lynette A. Barnes, regional attorney of the EEOC's Charlotte District Office, whose jurisdiction includes the state of Virginia. "This is true regardless of whether the harasser is a co-worker, there [sic] supervisor or a third party.”1 Ms. Barnes made this comment summarizing the 2012 ruling of EEOC v. Southwest Virginia Community Health System, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which awarded $30,000 to a receptionist who complained of sexual harassment by a patient.
Other EEOC lawsuits have been decided that all forms of harassment (sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.) in the workplace can be committed not just by supervisors and coworkers, but by third parties such as customers, vendors, delivery people, or repair workers, and the employer can be held liable. Harassment can even happen outside the workplace while work duties are being performed – think about your delivery people.
These lawsuits can be costly to defend and the awarded damages can be a huge financial burden, enough to put you out of business.
Here are 4 ways to keep your employees safe from the threat of third party harassment and protect you from lawsuits:
Formal Written Policy – As discussed in 4 Reasons Why Your Restaurant Needs an Employee Handbook, “having a well written manual in place can protect your business from potential labor disputes and costly legal fees, which can destroy your business.” Your manual must have a section that addresses harassment, both within the organization and from third parties, and how to deal with it. It must include clear guidelines outlining: how an employee can escalate a situation to a manager, supervisor and/or the owner; what steps will be take once a complaint is made; and a non-retaliation clause.
Train Employees on How to Handle Situation – Once you have a written policy, this policy must be included in your employee training for all positions. Train your staff on how to stay safe from aggressive or harassing customers. Often situations get out of control quickly and your staff must be able to remain calm throughout. Have safety systems and protocols in place should these situations escalate. Additionally, your managers and supervisors need a higher level of training than your front-line staff to be able to deal with these types of complaints. Managers should be sensitive to situations that they can diffuse before they become reportable problems, or aware of situations that employees do not report.
Safety Systems and Protocols Protecting Employees – Have safety systems and protocols in place should these situations escalate. Regardless of how management learns about the harassment, you should immediately re-assign an upset employee, so as not to have to deal with or talk to a particular offending individual. Then the manager must address this with the offending person. This can be a difficult conversation, but no customer, vendor or repair person is more important than the legal rights of your employees.
Consider these additional steps: having an employee buddy system for closing, so no one person closes alone late at night; putting notification of unacceptable employee behavior on your website, on POS computer ‘pop up’ messages; and including a term in all contracts with third party vendors and service suppliers notifying them of your policy on harassment and requiring them to adhere to it.
Remove or Ban the Individual from your Establishment - If the behavior doesn't stop, the owner or manager needs to take such action as removing and possibly banning a customer, vendor or repair person from the restaurant. Many Restaurant owners do not want to take such a drastic step and lose a customer, but the cost of losing a customer is much less than the cost of an EEOC lawsuit.
Like many other issues we have addressed in our blogs, the keys to protecting your employees are: training, communication and vigilance. It is important that your employees can feel safe in reporting a situation to management and know that you and your team “have their back”. Keeping a comfortable work environment allows your employees to do their best, provide the best service and keep your customers happy.
The people whom you hire can be your biggest asset. It is easy to forget that Employees are Your First Customers, if you do not take care of their well-being, they will not be beneficial to your business.
Don’t know where to begin? 4Q Consulting can develop customized business and operational guidelines to help you start and run your business. Email us today for a free business consultation at www.4qconsult.com.
All original content copyright Noelle E. Ifshin, 2013-2014.