By: Stefanie Allweiss
As co-founder of Gotcha Covered HR, and having worked in Human Resources for over 35 years, I have dealt with, and worked to prevent, sexual harassment allegations from many sides. This has ranged from investigating myriad complaints of sexual harassment, representing clients accused of unlawful misconduct, mediating complaints when they have become lawsuits, and training supervisors, employees, department chairs and students on appropriate workplace conduct. I have counseled parties on appropriate resolution and remedial measures, and businesses on how to put preventative measures in place to avoid unlawful behaviors in their workplace – while setting up reporting procedures to learn if unwanted conduct has occurred.
Avoid HR Mistakes Regarding Sexual Harassment
The most common mistakes made by companies, universities and businesses can be seen in the news reports this week, where dozens of employees of the John Besh Restaurant Group (“BRG”) have come forward to allege they were subjected to severe and pervasive, unwanted sexual misconduct over a period of many years at BRG establishments. These alleged behaviors alone are not what make this story so troubling.
Hire HR Staff & Develop a Reporting Procedure
Assuming the allegations are true, there are several measures that could have been taken by BRG, or any business, that may have prevented or at least have minimized ongoing serious misconduct, before the behaviors became so egregious and intolerable. From the outset, a business should consider hiring an HR staff to which employees can report, whether in-house or an outside consultant; someone that is trusted by the employees and promoted by the employer as someone to whom concerns may be voiced. There should be a provision in the handbook (along with the legal protections against harassment, discrimination and retaliation) specifying the person to whom employees should report, with an alternative person identified, in case that person is not available or may not be impartial.
An available, knowledgeable HR person can identify sensitive issues and is positioned to either resolve a situation before it gets worse or direct remedial measures in accordance with the severity of workplace conduct. To take no action at all is not only a bad business decision, but a violation of the law. The law requires that once you know (or should have known) about a complaint of sexual harassment, an employer has a duty to investigate the matter promptly and thoroughly. Without a reporting procedure, a company may go uninformed of inappropriate unlawful conduct; that is, until it becomes public or results in expensive litigation.
“To take no action at all is not only a bad business decision, but a violation of the law.”
In our experience, most employees do not want to file lawsuits. They want a decent place to go to work every day, and once there to feel they are treated with dignity and respect. Employees want to work in a safe and inclusive environment. One employee at the Besh Group who alleged she was subjected to inappropriate treatment over a period of time was quoted as saying, “if they had a decent HR person, I would have gone to them.” In an interview, John Besh protégé Chef Alon Shaya said he had tried for years to no avail to get Besh to hire an HR person to manage the 1,200 employee staff.
Make Employees Feel Secure in Reporting Misconduct
Another critical mistake is for a company to either explicitly or implicitly discourage employees from complaining about workplace conduct; or, more commonly, to not take complaints seriously when they are reported.
A number of BRG women interviewed said they either knew or were led to understand that BRG had no human resources department. In a Times-Picayune article, one woman said when she contacted a manager she was told, “you don’t want to be a whistleblower, do you?”
This attitude by management has a chilling effect, and can dissuade employees from resolving complaints internally. From a cost-effective objective, if you are a business owner, you certainly want to resolve complaints internally in lieu of defending a lawsuit or a charge of discrimination filed with the EEOC – both of which scenarios can end with the business owing tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, damages, and loss of reputation in the community.
Build a Productive and Successful Workplace
At Gotcha Covered HR, our philosophy is that employees are a businesses’ most valuable asset. Each employee is morally and legally entitled to a work environment free from harassment and discrimination in his or her daily interaction with co-employees, supervisors, vendors, customers and third parties. Every employer, in order to provide a productive and successful workplace environment, should have policies in place to educate their employees about their rights to work in a safe and inclusive workplace. Gotcha Covered HR can assist you with policies, training, investigation of complaints, and employee relations matters to help you create and maintain a more successful relationship with your workforce.
“No one should feel unwelcome, afraid or unsafe in their place of work. That is not acceptable and that is not how I endeavor to run my restaurants. Harassment is not just a part of kitchen culture-the industry does not get a pass.” -Alon Shaya