Forty Percent (40%) of women in the fast food industry have been subjected to sexual harassment, according to research conducted by respected Heart Research Associates. Sexual harassment has serious consequences for its victims. Female victims of sexual harassment in the fast food industry suffer anxiety, disturbance of sleep and loss of appetite.
Many fast food brands have limited or ineffective policies that attempt to ensure that their franchisees provide a work place free from sexual harassment. These nationally known brands try to avoid liability in sexual harassment, and, frequently, they succeed by arguing that they do not exert enough control over their franchisees to be held liable when an employee at a local store harasses, discriminates against or even sexually assaults a co-worker. These national chains make this argument notwithstanding the fact that their failure to adopt national anti-harassment policies trickles down and creates an illicit culture: It leads to franchises that don’t adopt policies, which, in turn, creates a Wild West atmosphere at fast food restaurants.
People suffer as a result. One of our clients, an 18-year-old woman, was sent lewd text messages by a married manager and offered money for sex. The national franchise effectively said, “Sorry for your pain, but we have no responsibility for franchise managers who happen to be sexual predators.” We know the brand insists that the franchisee serve hot coffee, but when it comes to whether store managers harass teenage employees, well, “that’s not our business.”
Of course, we disagreed and sued. We leveraged the franchisee’s insurance policy to get our client a sizeable six-figure settlement. But that’s not good enough. National fast-food franchises should implement nationwide sexual harassment policies and impose those policies on franchisees.
An exception to the rule laid out here may be McDonald’s, which recently announced an effort to train employees and a hotline for victims to create a bias free workplace. Granted, McDonald’s only acted after pressure from activists and a United States Senator. But, while it is too early to tell how real McDonald’s initiatives are, at least the company has taken some first positive steps.
Meanwhile, legislators and courts must implement some commonsense public policy: Big-name franchisors should be held liable for the harassment at their franchise stores if they do not have an effective nationwide anti-sexual-harassment policy in place.