Rallies were recently organized across the nation by women’s rights and restaurant worker advocacy groups in response to a published study on sexual harassment in restaurants. According to the study, 90 percent of female employees and 70 percent of male employees reported experiencing sexual harassment by customers. Although managers may be trained on how to respond to an employee’s complaint of harassment by a fellow employee, it is not unusual for managers to brush off complaints of customer misconduct. The customers are, after all, spending money at the restaurant and (hopefully) tipping for the service. What’s the risk of turning a blind eye?
In Lockard v. Pizza Hut, Inc., two male customers regularly made sexually offensive comments to a female waitress. One evening, one of the men told the waitress she “smelled good” and asked what cologne she was wearing. She told him it was none of his business, and he responded by pulling her hair. The waitress immediately reported the incident to her supervisor, said she did not want to continue waiting on the customers, and requested for another employee to serve the customers. Her supervisor denied her request, stating “You wait on them. You were hired to be a waitress. You waitress.” When the waitress returned to the table, the customer “pulled her to him by the hair, grabbed her breast, and put his mouth on her breast.” The waitress immediately told her supervisor she was quitting. Soon thereafter, she filed an EEOC complaint and then sued Pizza Hut and the franchisee. Finding the franchisee vicariously liable for the customers’ conduct, the appellate court upheld a $200,000 jury verdict against the franchisee for putting the waitress in an “abusive and potentially dangerous situation.”
Contrast that scenario with Hallberg v. Eat’n Park, where a waitress alleged she was sexually harassed by a regular customer who made sexual propositions to her. The waitress reported the incident, and the restaurant manager promptly informed the customer he would be barred from the establishment if there were any more sexually explicit incidents. The court ruled in favor of the restaurant because it took prompt, remedial action in response to the harassment.
As with other areas of harassment, training is vital. A harassment policy must prohibit misconduct by customers and vendors in addition to that by employees, and employees must be trained on the policy. Instruct all employees to report harassment, and ensure they know to whom they should report. Finally, train managers and supervisors how to react to harassment complaints, and remind employees that there will be no retaliation for making such complaints.
Losing one harassing customer’s business is not worth the enormous liability that can attach if the restaurant chooses to look the other way. For questions, contact Bryan A. Stillwagon at (404) 567-4372 or via email.