Set zero-tolerance policies to avoid harassment claims
Set zero-tolerance policies to avoid harassment claims
31 JANUARY 2018 8:19 AM

It’s important for executives at hotel companies to let employees know that sexual harassment will not be tolerated and that claims should be reported to management. 

You can’t turn on your television or read the latest newsfeed without hearing allegations of sexual harassment in every industry sector. If you ask Anthony Bourdain, chef and host of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” he will tell you that the hospitality world is the next up for a public reckoning.

As the #MeToo movement remains top of mind in the general and trade media, I think we all have received the message: there is no place for sexual harassment in our businesses. As part of its 2017 Strategic Enforcement Plan, the Equality Employment Opportunity Commission also announced that “harassment continues to be one of the most frequent complaints raised in the workplace.”

Of the 91,503 charges filed with the EEOC in fiscal year 2016 (which included workplace discrimination based on sex, race, color, national origin and religion), 12,860 charges alleged sex-based harassment. It should be no surprise that among the EEOC’s six substantive area priorities for fiscal years 2017 through 2021 is to prevent systemic harassment in the workplace.

To cover the necessary steps to prevent actionable sexual harassment in your operation is well beyond the scope of this column. Hopefully, you have access to human resources, and/or legal resources, to create policies and procedures to address workplace conduct, investigate complaints and provide training to employees and managers.

More succinctly, perhaps the most important step to protecting your employees and business from these claims is to take a hard look at your property’s culture. First and foremost, leaders need to be committed to creating an environment for their employees that sets a climate of zero tolerance for sexual harassment. Establishing a culture of zero tolerance has to be set from the top down, meaning that management has to send a clear message throughout the property that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.

This could mean terminating a talented front desk manager or highly sought chef who is found to have engaged in sexual harassment to send a clear message that no one is untouchable. By setting a tone of zero tolerance, employees will know that sexual harassment is not tolerated and that they can report complaints to the managers because their complaints will be taken seriously, which gives restaurants a chance to redress the situation before it gets out of hand. The policy should be reflected in the employee handbook.

Another way to communicate the non-harassment policy is to post it on an employee bulletin board or on the managers’ office doors. Additionally, if the operation has an intranet, the non-harassment policy should be posted there.

Some companies have found other unique ways to communicate the complaint mechanism of the policy, such as by including a statement about the policy on the employee’s paycheck stub. An example of such a statement might be “To report harassment or discrimination, please contact John Doe, general manager”, and provide the appropriate contact information.

It’s important to insure employees understand the operation and will not retaliate against complaints, and that they should feel comfortable reporting with complaints. Well-developed reporting and investigation procedures are critical to verify allegations and protect all employees. Nevertheless, as we have read and seen in the recent media, many victims of harassment have hesitated to speak out. Part of creating a culture in which sexual harassment is minimized, if not driven out completely, is making employees feel comfortable reporting harassment.

An EEOC investigation, let alone lawsuit, is expensive. It can be disastrous for the brand in this age of social media, in which independent operators are just as exposed to negative publicity as the major brands, but without the resources to provide damage control.

Businesses with abusive environments have high turnover and difficulty attracting good employees. The word gets out among employees and their families and friends. As a member of a state hospitality organization, I have heard a number of operators share their struggles to fill positions, given the relatively low unemployment rate.

You will want to get approval from your human resources and/or legal compliance advisors before instituting these measures. In my way of thinking, the discussion alone is valuable to make sure sexual harassment has no place in your organization. I like to think of the payoff as creating an environment in which your staff is respectful of each other and guests; a place where you would not mind your loved ones working.

Barry Shuster, JD, MBA, MS, CHE, CHIA is interim chair of the Hospitality & Tourism Administration program at North Carolina Central University School of Business, and a visiting associate professor of business and hospitality law and hospitality finance and cost control.

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