Restaurant Masters on Handling Sexual Harassment Complaints and Disability Discrimination

Employee lawsuits can be costly for both sides of a case. Former litigator and current restaurant employment lawyer Lexington Wolff uses her practice to advise industry owners who wish to avoid such lawsuits in the first place.

For the two launch episodes of the new podcast Restaurant Masters, guest host Wolff discusses the right way to approach sexual harassment complaints and disability discrimination.

With the rise of the Me Too movement, sexual harassment has become a more public concern for restaurant owners and industry operators. If a complaint is not handled effectively, a restaurant’s reputation can be irretrievably damaged overnight.

As a litigator, Wolff watched employers spend an “unbelievable amount” of time, money, and resources to defend themselves in court. And the individual cases were, almost always, completely preventable.

“The way you address this issue has an enormous impact on your workplace culture,” says Wolff. “The legal standard for sexual harassment is that employers have to stop conduct that they either know or should have known was happening in the workplace.”

Restaurant owners need to have a plan and protocol in place for complaints—including alternate channels of reporting. And complaints need to be taken seriously and fully investigated.

“There’s no such thing as an allegation that’s too small or too insignificant,” adds Wolff. “You want to make sure you do absolutely everything you can to show your employees that you care.”

Listen to the podcast above to learn more about cultivating a healthy workplace culture and the importance of decisive action after conducting a sexual harassment investigation.

Many employers today still only think of disabilities in the context of their common physical manifestations—deafness, blindness, or the need for a wheelchair. But mental disabilities are also protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and restaurant owners need to be careful in ensuring that they are doing all that they are legally required to do for their employees and potential hires.

“There’s no definitive list of disabilities under the law,” says Wolff. “And mental conditions are equally protected.”

According to Wolff, 8.5 percent of charges in 2018 disability discrimination cases were related to anxiety disorder, and 7 percent were related to depression.

Wolff encourages her clients to remember to keep the conversation open and supportive when approached by an employee asking for a disability accommodation. “Handle it on a case by case basis,” notes Wolff, “and work on it together with [your employee] to determine a solution.”

Check out the podcast above to get a deep dive into the rules for discussing a disability with a potential hire, and to better understand the concept of undue hardship in regards to requested disability accommodations.

Produced by:

Darisha Beresford

Darisha Beresford

Production Manager / Sr. Producer

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5 Things Restaurant Owners Need to Know About Sex-Based Discrimination

5 Things Restaurant Owners Need to Know About Sex-Based Discrimination

Turns out, sexual harassment isn’t the only type of sex-based complaint employers are facing. LGBT-related workplace complaints are on the rise, but unlike with sexual harassment, the law isn’t nearly as clear. In fact, it varies extensively across state and federal courts, leaving many employers at a loss to understand their legal obligations. Let’s take a look at what restaurant owners need to know about sex-based discrimination in the workplace – what conduct is illegal and where.  

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Mike Isabella's Sexual Harassment Case Got Upgraded to the Federal Court

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Last month, Chloe Caras, a former manager for Mike Isabella, filed a lawsuit against the celebrity chef in D.C. Superior Court. Since then, that suit was dismissed by her lawyers to file a new one at the federal level.

As reported by “The Washington Post,” an expanded lawsuit filed in federal court this week by Caras’ lawyers alleges that Isabella’s company used non-disclosure agreements to discourage employees from speaking out about sexual harassment.

The NDAs, which involve a $500,000 penalty every time the agreement is breached, have caused that many witnesses to the hostile and sexually charged work environment— allegedly fostered by Mike Isabella and his business partners (Taha Ismail, Yohan Allender, George Pagonis, and Nicholas Pagonis)—speak in anonymity.

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Building the Non-Sexual Harassment Restaurant Culture

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For many seasons on the popular HBO series Game of Thrones, they kept saying that “Winter is coming” that was foreshadowing of a Great War to come. Well, Winter is here for the restaurant industry! The great restaurant storm of 2018 is upon us and many will need to form alliances (already happening), some will rebrand (already happening), and all will need to understand that people are what makes the difference (not there yet).

We, as an industry, perpetuate memes and jokes around the internet that display our world as overworked, devalued, and unappreciated. It’s not so funny that we tend to get what we ask for. We become the stereotypes we share.

How do we change this sexual harassment culture that infests so much of our industry? How can we reverse the course which we seem to be heading down to becoming the next Sodom and Gomorrah?

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Top Managers Quit Charlie Hallowell Restaurant Amid Sexual Harassment Allegations

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In the latest chapter of harassment allegations in our industry, three managers and chefs from Charlie Hallowell’s Boot and Shoe Service have resigned over alleged “serial harassment” from the owner.

Last year, 17 former employees of Hallowell’s Pizzaiolo, Boot & Shoe Service, and Penrose restaurants accused the restaurateur of creating a demoralizing work environment where his "indecent propositions and about of his power were the norm," and that the workplace featured a "near-constant stream of sexually explicit language."

An ultimatum was proposed earlier this month when a group of seven top managers threatened to resign from the Oakland restaurant if Hallowell didn’t divest from the restaurant. This weekend, protests were staged outside the restaurant over the alleged harassment and the way Hallowell and his company have handled the allegations.

Crisis consultant Larry Kamer, who was recently brought in as a spokesman for the restaurant group, said that the protest was peaceful and that the picketers would not lose their jobs as a result. Staff from the other restaurants were brought in during the protest, and he said the company is hiring people to fill jobs of departing employees.

“We know there are a number of people who feel strongly about this,” Kamer said

This protest came at a time when hundreds of women marched across the country as a part of the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement.

By Sunday, three managers and chefs had resigned from Boot & Shoe Service after their demands that he divest from the company were not met.

“I feel pretty sad. I feel like I really had some measure of hope — maybe I was naive — that this was going to work,” said Emily Hayward, who resigned as general manager along with pastry chef Jenny Raven and brunch manager Stephanie Chevalier. However, Hayward added, “I feel very confident in my decision. The lack of response really told me everything I needed to hear as far as my value.”

Boot & Shoe Service chef Gregg Cashmark, sous chef Matt Fishman and cafe manager Greg Francis told The San Francisco Chronicle they are also planning to quit in the coming days. Top staff from Hallowell’s two other Oakland restaurants, Pizzaiolo and Penrose, did not join them in the action.

After the original Chronicle investigation was published Dec. 27th, Hallowell responded by removing himself from his company’s day-to-day operations while an outside attorney conducts an investigation.

Read more at “The San Francisco Chronicle.”

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