Employee bullying claims can bury your business

| by Lindsay Ayers
Employee bullying claims can bury your business

In the fast-paced and highly competitive restaurant industry, bullying among co-workers can quickly take root in every setting from the restaurant kitchen to the corporate offices. In fact, stressful restaurant settings are frequently prime breeding grounds for the often brutal physical, emotional and mental abuse of bullies.

The quick-service restaurant setting with its constant deadlines is particularly suited for the development of this type of behavior, which is why it is critical that restaurant and chain leadership and owners understand the problem and take the steps needed to protect both their employees and their businesses. The problem and potential effects on both the restaurant industry and people working in it are only growing in scope and attention. 

For instance, over the last few years as the great harm bullying inflicts on its victims has become the focus of more attention, state government in jurisdictions like the restaurant-heavy state of California, have initiated efforts to call more attention to the problem and its effects on business in an effort to curb its growth.

Across the restaurant industry, claims of age discrimination, particularly, are on the rise. In these pressing economic times, older workers are taking jobs in the restaurant and service industry that were traditionally held by younger, part-time workers. ... With more older workers in the restaurant's ranks, there is a more pronounced age disparity between employees, creating more opportunity for litigation involving age-based (bullying-related) claims.

In 2014, for example,California began requiring that all employers in the state specifically address all types of abusive conduct, like bullying, in mandated biannual supervisor training to prevent workplace sexual harassment problems.

Restaurant leadership must know what bullying really is

Legal definitions of "abusive conduct" or bullying as a malicious action by an employer or employee in the workplace describe it as an action that reasonable people would find hostile, offensive and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests. Included in this definition are the following:

  1. Use of derogatory remarks, insults and epithets.
  2. Verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating or humiliating.
  3. The gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance.

Such conduct may include aggressive communication, like insults, shouting or harsh emails, as well as acts designed to humiliate a worker through ridicule, teasing, rumors and/or gossip. Abusive conduct or bullying can also include actions like the manipulation of work assignments in ways that make unreasonable demands or create unmanageable workloads or impossible deadlines. It is also conduct like the withholding of key information that an employee needs to perform job responsibilities.

Why should restaurant leadership be concerned?  

In the restaurant industry, like many others, the harmful effects of workplace bullying are not confined strictly to the employees involved, but extend also to affect overall restaurant business and financial welfare. Just consider, for instance, how an action like depriving an employee of necessary on-the-job information might ultimately affect restaurant customers or other staff.

Likewise, the effects of workplace bullying can be severe for victims who may experience marginalization, depression, detachment, severe anxiety and even suicidal thoughts or actions. Leadership at either the store- or system-level who fail to detect, address and correct problems of bullying in the restaurant environment or even corporate setting ultimately not only results in higher health insurance costs and workers’ compensation claims, but also a decline in the quality of customer service, rate of sales growth, and even the many ripple effects of patrons' negative dining experiences, likw poor publicity, online reviews, lower morale and higher employee turnover. These are all costly to overall operations and long-term success.

Increasingly though, the effects go beyond those in the workplace when unchecked bullying ultimately subjects a brand or company to civil liability when victimized employees successfully claim that the harmful on-the-job actions taken against them were either discrimination or harassment due to the victim's age, race, religion, or other protected status.

Across the restaurant industry, claims of age discrimination, particularly, are on the rise. In these pressing economic times, older workers are taking jobs in the restaurant and service industry that were traditionally held by younger, part-time workers, like young students. But, now with more older workers in the restaurant's ranks, there is a more pronounced age disparity between employees, creating more opportunity for litigation involving age-based claims.

In fact, older employees — who are often the target of criticism and repeated forms of harassment — often file claims of age discrimination under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, as well as the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act. 

Prevention begins with knowledge, but doesn't stop there

Employers in the restaurant industry should be vigilant in trying to identify such issues before they become serious and repetitive occurrences in the workplace. Any failure to correct these tensions immediately can lead to substantial legal liability if an affected employee can demonstrate that they were subject to a hostile work environment as the result of bullying which they can show was related to their status as members of a protected group, like older workers.  

To avoid the increased costs and liability which workplace bullying can bring on, restaurant owners must be vigilant. Effective counter-measures that limit and define the boundaries of this type of unwanted behavior include actions like:

  • Employee anti-bullying training.
  • A written anti-workplace bullying policy.
  • Establishment of a company complaint procedure, enabling identification and remediation of workplace bullying.
  • A swift program of investigation and action regarding complaints of workplace bullying.

Employment-focused legal professionals can assist restaurant owners in drafting such policies and providing training to assure these practices are incorporated into everyday operations.

Editor's note: Denisha P. McKenzie, of the Orange County office of labor and employment law firm, Carothers DiSante & Freudenberger LLP, contributed to this article. 


Photo: iStock

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Customer Service / Experience, Insurance / Risk Management, Staffing & Training

Lindsay Ayers

Lindsay A. Ayers advises and defends California businesses in labor, employment, and general business matters. She is an experienced trial attorney and has represented clients in matters involving employment, unfair competition, fiduciary duty, breach of contract, negligence, unjust enrichment, securities, and fraud. She also has experience representing clients in government regulatory actions involving the EEOC, DFEH, and SEC, among others. Ayers has practiced in federal and state courts throughout California.

wwwView Lindsay Ayers's profile on LinkedIn

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