Many companies have policies in place that are geared towards preventing harassment and discrimination. Simply having a policy will not render a business immune from liability. Supervisors must be trained and these policies must be enforced.
Recently, an International House of Pancakes franchise learned this lesson the hard way. (Another sexual harassment case against IHOP? Say it isn’t so. See Cobb v. Sunshine Restaurants discussed below). Two teen employees filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against IHOP based on the conduct of its supervisor. He frequently propositioned these young ladies including asking if they enjoyed “rough sex.” The girls (not ladies; dude they are teens) complained to the restaurant manager who did nothing. At this point IHOP’s fatal error becomes obvious to the casual observer. A jury awarded the teens $4000 and $1000 respectively for lost wages. The teens were also awarded $100,000 in punitive damages.
At this point, you would say IHOP lost, game over. IHOP, however, was convinced it did nothing wrong and filed an appeal. IHOP argued that everyone had to attend sexual harassment training. Everyone included employees and managers.
The court, considering IHOPs, appeal refused to overturn the verdict. The court noted that although the policy required harassment training, IHOP did not provide everyone with harassment training. One manager noted that she never received the training although she was required to provide the training to her employees. The court further noted that in cases with teens, extra care must be taken to address claims of harassment.
The mere creation of a sexual harassment policy will not shield a company from its responsibility to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.
Reading the facts of this case, it is hard to believe that IHOP would waste the court’s time with an appeal. This case involved sexual harassment by a supervisor, followed by the failure of the restaurant manager to investigate the claims of harassment. Even if IHOP’s anti-harassment policies were carved in stone, that would not be enough to escape liability. The bottom line is business owners must take all allegations of harassment seriously and immediately launch an investigation when employees claim that they have experienced workplace harassment.
If you have any questions about sexual harassment, be sure to call Rich Bradford at (813) 413-2402.
As a side note, there is a very good chance that IHOP’s attorneys advised them that their chances of prevailing on appeal were slim. IHOP probably went forward with the appeal to erase the $100,000 punitive damages award.