A growing number of lawsuits alleging discrimination and harassment at some of the most famous restaurants and hotels in the United States (and other parts of the world) have made headlines recently.
However, to anyone who has worked in hospitality operations this unfortunately is not a recent phenomenon. Across all segments of the industry, these allegations are a daily challenge. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the hospitality sector alone filed almost 6,000 sexual harassment claims from 2005 - 2015, making up 14.2% of total claims made during that period.
Why then, are managers, supervisors, chefs, and owners still struggling with how to resolve them?
There are many reasons why, but one of the issues is that employers and employees are unsure and not equipped on how to handle these sensitive situations. Many victims of workplace misconduct fail to report it because they fear retaliation, harm to their career, and loss of income. Employers on the other hand fear their reputation and business is on the line.
But for the health of your business and the wellbeing of your employees, it’s important to know how best to respond (and how not to) when a harassment claim is made. Here’s how to do it.
Be a responsible employer first
Before even going through any allegations or claims, it’s important to demonstrate to your employees very early on that you’re looking out for them by providing them a safe and professional workplace environment. This seems obvious enough, but it needs to be built and embedded into your culture.
Explain to your employees their expected behaviours and unacceptable behaviours, outline your workplace policies and help them understand the implications when they’re out of line. It’s not enough to write down your policies, so make it a habit and practice what your business stands for in your day-to-day. For example catch up with your employees when you can. Like a parent, you’re a role model for your employees.
Most employees yearn for a place to work, and a team of co-workers, that they can be proud of, feel a part of, and know their contributions are valued. So creating this culture early on will allow your employees to feel comfortable with communicating their issues when it arises later on, because you’ve set the boundaries up.
How to respond:
If your employees are willing and find the courage to speak out about an issue they feel is detrimental to themselves, their workplace, or their team, they should be heard with objectivity, respect and confidentiality – free from any form of retaliation or victimization for reports made in good faith.
We should all encourage speaking out–anonymous or not, of misconduct concerns from all employees, and investigate every report to ensure that brewing problems are addressed before they become major issues.
Are all complaints valid? No. But when they are, it’s well worth taking the time to weed out the false reports to ensure the credible ones are resolved.
- Investigate immediately
Resolving in a timely manner and carefully documenting each step taken, in a way that could be used in the media or in court (if it comes to that point).
- Be objective and fair
Ensuring the “accuser” and the “accused” each get an opportunity to tell their side of the story. Investigate thoroughly for both parties.
- Be proactive
Take decisive and appropriate disciplinary action then follow up periodically to ensure the steps taken were sufficient to prevent future, similar incidents.
- Continue to focus on your business
Ensure whoever investigates does so with minimal disruption to your operation and do not tolerate gossip.
- Learn from the experience
How did the fraud or misconduct occur and how can you prevent it from happening again?
How not to respond:
- Handle the allegation reactively
A common reason why discrimination and harassment complaints often blossom from a problem to a public catastrophe is because of reactive handling. Time should be taken to investigate a complaint in an objective, methodical, confidential and consistent manner.
- Dismiss or ignore the report/claim
If you (or whoever receives the report) can respond directly in writing or in person, thank them sincerely for their report, let them know you will look into it, and ask them if they can be available for follow-up questions if needed. It's important to really listen and demonstrate your responsibility as an employer.
- Make assumptions about the allegator or the claim
It doesn’t matter if they just received an unfavorable performance review or were terminated. Unfortunately, some employees believe in keeping things “in their back pocket” rather than speaking out immediately. But, this does not mean the reporter is being untruthful.
- Confront the implicated person with the claim
Instead, first plan how (or if) the matter will be investigated, or co-operate with whoever is leading the investigation. Do your homework. Avoid putting the implicated person on notice until the time is right, or you may risk losing key evidence that can be destroyed or manipulated before your investigation even gets started.
- Share with others, unless they explicitly need to know
Sharing the details, or even the existence of an allegation, outside of a “need to know” circle can lead to possible damage. Doing so could risk someone’s reputation, hinder an objective investigation, and lead to a leak of a confidential matter to a larger audience. This also applies to online platforms - avoid sharing details online, there are too many instances where it goes out of hand.
- Keep the investigation independent
Although it can be justified in some situations to delegate the investigation to an internal supervisor, generally it is best to keep it objective and independent.
- Go easy on disciplinary action
Everyone is remorseful when they have been caught. Be consistent. Consult with your HR and Legal team if you have the resources available. Consider reporting to law enforcement if warranted. Your entire team is watching your next move.
- Retaliate against the employee who made the claim
They as your employee should not be treated any differently because they spoke up, ensure others on the team understand this as well.
Acknowledging, swiftly investigating and resolving employee concerns about unethical or illegal behavior has an exponentially positive effect on individual and team morale, and ultimately, on your business.
Regardless of how sublime your cuisine, failing to address issues of this nature can negatively impact or even close your business. Give your employees the tools and the confidence they need to alert you to wrongdoing.
Respond appropriately, and remember, as Australian Army Lieutenant General David Morrison said regarding an investigation into harassment in the military: “the standard we walk past is the standard we accept.”
|Juliette Gust is the founder and president of Ethics Suite, the first and only workplace misconduct, theft, and fraud reporting platform designed exclusively for the hospitality industry. She has personally led over 1,300 investigations spanning 75 countries, and advised on close to 10,000 whistleblower reports.|
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