A restaurant just north of Atlanta, Georgia apparently thought it found the perfect way to stop complaints by a waitress who was being sexually harassed. It fired her. And not only did it fire her, it also fired her mom, her aunt and her uncle, who also worked there and supported the complaints. It’s not clear why the restaurant, Sangria’s Mexican Cafe in Tucker, Georgia, didn’t just fire the harasser, but it didn’t.
I sometimes see employers do this when a victim complains. Rather than solve the problem, the employer fires the victim. It’s a very short-sighted strategy. The harasser just moves onto the next target, and the victim often goes to see a lawyer. This approach to solving workplace harassment rarely works.
It didn’t work here, either. A federal jury on February 6, 2012 awarded $51,700 to the family members who opposed the sexual harassment. It’s not a huge verdict, but it will cost the restaurant dearly. That’s because in addition to the verdict, it must also pay the family’s attorneys’ fees, since they won the lawsuit. Those fees can easily exceed $100,000.00. And that doesn’t include what Sangria’s paid its own lawyers to fight the case.
The family was represented by the EEOC, which is the federal agency that investigates workplace discrimination complaints. It sometimes handles cases, too. The EEOC’s press release can be found here: EEOC Press Release On Verdict Against Sangria’s Mexican Restaurant.
The evidence showed that the waitress complained many times about a male kitchen cook’s sexual advances, physical contact and remarks. The family members all reported the sexual harassment, but the owner didn’t stop it. He must have felt that firing the entire family was an easy solution.
Although the verdict, at $51,700.00, was relatively small, it is still a heavy blow for the restaurant, which is a relatively small operation. (It’s located in a small shopping center along with a barber shop, a liquor store and an auto repair facility.) The total cost to the restaurant, after attorneys’ fees and court costs, will probably exceed $300,000.00. It’s a message for small employers everywhere that they’re not immune from being held accountable by a jury.
Sometimes it’s the smaller workforces, like those types of business in the same shopping center as Sangria’s, where the worst harassment takes place. Such businesses often have no human resource department, no training, no background screening. And they often think that because of their smaller size, they’re operating below the radar of government agencies, judges and juries.