Written exclusively for Chubbworks
The former manager of a restaurant owned by a prominent Food Network chef and her brother has filed a lawsuit against the two owners, alleging an illegal hostile work environment. The white female manager claims that the chef's brother sexually harassed her after she started working at the restaurant in 2005.
The former manager claims that the brother targeted her for unwanted sexual advances soon after his sister appointed her manager of the restaurant. The brother watched pornography in the small office that he shared with the former manager, handed out sexually explicit pictures at an office meeting, and made frequent sexual innuendos.
Coupled with the sexual harassment allegations are complaints that the chef's brother physically intimidated black employees and made racial insults to them. Both owners allegedly used racial slurs. The brother demanded that black workers use a separate entrance from the one white workers used and that they were to use certain restrooms. The former manager also alleges that the brother physically shook a male black worker and challenged other workers to fight on other occasions.
The final straw came when the brother grabbed the former manager's face during a dinner for vendors stating, " I love you," and later screamed at her and spit in her face. The former manager, suffered panic attacks while at work, quit her job. "Paula Deen, brother sued for harassment," www.usatoday.com (Mar. 5, 2012).
Commentary and Checklist
This case involves both racial and sexual harassment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines racial harassment as racial slurs, offensive or derogatory remarks about a person's race or color, or the display of racially-offensive symbols.
Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
Under both forms of illegal harassment, an infrequent or casual offensive comment or joke may not rise to the level of actionable discrimination. However, either racial or sexual conduct may provide a basis for a hostile work environment claim when harassment is so frequent or severe that it creates a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.
Whether the conduct in this case crosses the "frequent or severe" threshold has yet to be decided. However, employers should pay attention to the fact that the manager's race discrimination claims in this case are based on conduct directed at her black co-workers, not at her, a white woman. An employee can sue an employer for a hostile work environment even if the employee is not the direct target of the abusive conduct.
The costs of harassment are high for both victims and employers. Victims often suffer psychologically, physically and emotionally, and this case shows that the damage caused by harassment can spread beyond the direct victims of the harassment to the greater workforce. For the employer, the effects may be far-reaching - damaging workforce morale, loyalty and productivity while allowing a fear-based environment to grow.
Establishing a productive workplace involves strong anti-harassment policies along with a safe and effective way for employees to report harassing behavior.
Here are some guidelines for managers and supervisors dealing with harassment in the workplace:
- When a person is making a complaint of harassment, make certain that he or she does so without the accused in the room.
- Consider having a neutral witness, preferably another manager, hear the complaint as well.
- Report the harassment immediately to human resources, or have the person make his or her complaint to human resources directly.
- If at all possible, separate the complainant and the accused until the matter is resolved.
- Make certain that other employees who are not part of or a witness to the complaint stay uninvolved.
- Be watchful for any signs of retaliation after the complaint is made.
- Continue to watch for retaliation after the complaint is resolved.
- Make sure that witnesses and others who cooperate with an investigation of harassment do not experience retaliation, either.
This informational piece was published on April 10, 2012.