You have heard the old saying “Everything is bigger in Texas,” right? Seems that’s true for settlement amounts, even when they aren’t really in Texas. Yesterday, the EEOC issued a press release announcing that the owners and operators of a Texas Roadhouse Restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, had agreed to pay $1.4 million to settle a class-action sexual harassment suit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against the owners and the management company of this particular restaurant. The settlement also included mandatory reporting and training among other affirmative relief for the victims.
“So what,” you say? I mean really, apart from the fact that $1.4 million is a lot of money, what’s the news, why should you care? Well, let me tell you. First, occasionally I get the impression that we think this sort of thing surely doesn’t happen anymore. After all, we are grown and are more sophisticated (can you read the sarcasm dripping from my fingers?) and surely we are beyond such behavior. If the facts the EEOC alleges are true, you can see that is not the case. And second, if you look at the facts the EEOC alleges, you get a really nice example of why you should take allegations of harassment seriously and make sure you investigate them fully.
Here is what the EEOC alleged in its complaint:
According to EEOC’s lawsuit, the manager of the restaurant . . . harassed women and teen girls working in server, hostess and other front-of-the-house positions. In the suit, EEOC identified 12 victims of his abuse who suffered unwelcome touching, humiliating remarks about their and other females’ bodies and sexuality, and pressure for sexual favors in exchange for employment benefits or as a condition of avoiding adverse employment action. EEOC charged that the harassment began in 2007, continued for over three and a half years until the manager was fired in May 2011, and was coupled with retaliation against employees who opposed the abuse.
Although the companies’ owners and individuals with high-level authority received multiple complaints about the manager’s abusive conduct throughout his employment, they failed to take prompt, effective action to put a stop to the abuse, EEOC said. [The manager] was not fired until May 2011, when he was seen on a surveillance video touching a 17-year-old female employee in his office at the restaurant during work hours, the agency charged.
Get the picture? Not your run-of-the-mill he said, she said hostile environment case—twelve victims, multiple complaints over three and a half years. And the company apparently did nothing about it. In fact, the EEOC thought the conduct was so bad the company had to agree as part of the settlement never to hire the manager back.
So what is the lesson, I mean besides not hiring people like this? The lesson is to take these kinds of allegations seriously, especially if you happen to be in a business that hires kids. When somebody complains, you need to investigate, and by investigate I don’t mean talk to one or two people, I mean investigate.
But before you even get to that point, you need to make sure you are creating a culture where people feel free to approach you when they have an issue—an atmosphere that encourages people to speak up. And that goes way beyond just complaining.. It means creating a work environment that encourages questions and maybe even dissent. It won’t just help when something like this comes up; it might make your workplace a better place to work.
If you want to read the entire EEOC press release, you can find it here. If you need help with training or investigation, give us a call.