Harassment and the hospitality sector

Since news broke of the Weinstein scandal in 2017, the #metoo movement has exploded on social media and has become something larger than just an internet movement. The spotlight has placed the often taboo subject of workplace harassment front and centre, and has sparked an upheaval of the predominant culture of silencing victims and sweeping problems under the rug. What started as a hashtag has encouraged thousands of people around the world to speak up against mistreatment at work.

Substantial uptick in harassment reports in the hospitality sector

  • The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported a remarkable uptick in sexual harassment reports –a 13.6% increase in 2018.
  • A George Washington University study has shown that there is a strong correlation between increased reporting volumes and positive business outcomes (eg fewer and lower amounts of government fines and material lawsuits). An effective and functioning protection framework and reporting system act as a good deterrent against inappropriate behaviour and allows management to address issues at an early stage.
  • According to the NAVEX 2019 Ethics & Compliance Hotline Benchmark Report, the hospitality sector has experienced one of the highest workplace harassment reporting rates, and the food services industry has the highest median reporting rate in 2018.
  • These figures are worthy of concern as these industries involve employees coming into regular contact with the public. The statistic highlights the importance to businesses in the hospitality and leisure sector of implementing better protection of employees, and safeguarding their employees not only from harassment within the organisation but also from third parties (eg customers, suppliers etc).

Key takeaways for employers

  • Harassment Policy
    • Employers should have in place a harassment policy, providing employees with channels to make harassment reports (eg speaking to manager or HR personnel, or reporting via a hotline). The policy should be available to all staff members and be easily accessible.
    • The major obstacle for not reporting harassment is fear of the incident being publicised or of retaliation. It is essential for the policy to state that all reports will be kept confidential to the greatest extent possible, and that any incidents will be taken seriously with appropriate follow-up actions. 
  • Protection from third party harassment
    • Although the legal regime may not have fully caught up with the need to provide protection to employees against harassment by third parties, we have observed increased scrutiny of this aspect of workplace harassment (eg in the UK, where legislative change in this area is under consultation).
    • Particularly applicable to the hospitality sector, organisations are encouraged to review their commercial agreements with external parties and to include wording prohibiting unlawful harassment of company staff.
    • In some respects, complaints of third party harassment may be more complicated to manage than internal complaints, as the company will have to consider the ongoing business relationship with the third party and the gathering of evidence may be much less straightforward. Putting in place contingency plans setting out steps for handling sexual harassment in relation to different categories of third parties ensures that businesses will be well-equipped to handle the complaints when they arise.
  • Education and raising awareness
    • Harassment and discrimination often arise from differences in perception. There may be gaps in understanding on what amounts to unacceptable and inappropriate behaviour.
    • Educating and raising employees' awareness on what constitutes workplace harassment is crucial to tackling the root cause and nipping things in the bud. It is equally important to train managers and HR personnel on how to handle and investigate harassment complaints – for example, how to conduct sensitive conversations with reporting employees and alleged harassers, navigating the confidentiality landscape, implementing appropriate follow-up and disciplinary actions, and when to contact government authorities.

With the #metoo movement revolutionising attitudes towards workplace harassment, it is a win-win situation for companies to have better anti-harassment policies – employees are better protected, and employers are able to retain talent and avoid potential liability arising from litigation and negative publicity.

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