Ask StratEx HR: Sexual Harassment in the Kitchen

Everyone loves music and dancing, right? Well, after a little alcohol, definitely. But let’s say you’re at work. It’s been a stressful day, and you just “gotta loosen up those chains and dance” (thank you to the Dixie Chicks for understanding). We all need to let loose sometimes, so what could possibly be wrong with an impromptu dance party with your coworkers? Let’s take a look at a submission to one of our StratExperts, Ask StratEx HR, to find out.

Dear StratEx HR,

What a week! I am the defacto HR person for a casual restaurant chain, and I need some serious help!

So here’s what happened… One of our employees, Tiffany, was taking a break with a couple of coworkers in the kitchen. The radio was on and, as it was told to me, “Pony” by Ginuwine came on. Everyone started freaking out because “Omg, this is totally my song!!” Tiffany started to feel the beat a little in her shoulders, and then, she said that she just couldn’t help it, she had to break it down. (Seriously?!) Other coworkers started cheering, and a dance circle formed.

Their supervisor, Ron, came back into the kitchen, and, rather than shutting the party down, he started dancing with Tiffany. Not waltzing or leaving room for the Holy Spirit, if you know what I mean. Some would call it freak dancing, juking, or maybe even bumping and grinding. (If you need a reference point, think of the club scene in Save the Last Dance… you get the idea.) Suddenly, Tiffany started to feel uncomfortable, but didn’t want to be the Debbie Downer of the party. After a few minutes, the break was over, so she went back to work and escaped the situation without drawing attention to herself. This is all according to a conversation that I had with Tiffany this morning, so I have not confirmed this story with anyone else yet.

I cannot handle this drama! What action do I need to take??

Losing my Groove

Dear Losing your Groove,

It sounds like you have had quite the week! While the nitty-gritty details may be unique, this situation is not as out of the box as it may seem (and, in fact, it sounds quite similar to many situations in which StratEx HR has advised our clients). I know that many questions must be running through your head, so I’ve tried to break your action plan down into questions that we typically receive in situations like this.

As her HR Manager, what do you need to consider when Tiffany comes to you the next day to report harassment?

First, as the HR Manager and leader of the investigation, you need to set expectations with Tiffany, including a realistic idea of confidentiality, timeline of the process, and the importance of the integrity of the investigation. She should know that you will be interviewing other witnesses, including the manager she is accusing. This may come as a surprise to her, but the fact of the matter is that these incidents do not exist in a bubble.

While it is best to take action immediately, coordinating these interviews may take some time, so be up front with Tiffany about this. Be sure to ask if she feels comfortable working during the investigation, and if so, schedule her on different shifts from Ron. During this initial discussion, just in case the gravity with which you handle these investigations has not yet set in, you should also include an expectation of integrity as it pertains to the investigation. For example, if Tiffany is also messaging her supervisor on social media during the investigation, then her claim of harassment might be viewed in a different light.

Next, you need to gather statements from all of the witnesses that are available, as well as any other evidence that is available to you. Other evidence could include video footage from a security camera, time records indicating break times, a copy of the schedule, or email communication between parties, to name a few.

Was your sexual harassment policy violated by this supervisor, or is Tiffany at fault for being complicit in the behavior?

pexels-photo-29346One of the main issues we address again and again with harassment is that the intention of the offender does not matter if the conduct is unwelcome, prohibited, and based on a protected category.  So even though Ron may have thought he was being a “cool boss” by joining in, he was, in fact, making Tiffany and potentially others uncomfortable with his actions. Assuming that no other relationship exists outside of work between Tiffany and Ron, it is safe to say that Tiffany may have felt pressured to continue dancing rather than face the intimidating situation of confronting her manager in front of other employees.

That does not mean that other infractions against company policy will not come out during the course of an investigation. For example, if it is against your company policy to take a break in the kitchen, then you may need to coach employees during the process of investigating. You will want to balance consistent enforcement of policies with unintentionally scaring employees from reporting incidents due to their fear of being written up.

Should someone lose their job over a seemingly lighthearted interaction?

This is something that needs to be weighed on a scale of severity and pervasiveness. That means attempting to gauge to what extent or how grossly the incident violated the company harassment policy. It also means looking at performance history to see if this is the first time that an incident like this has occurred with this particular manager or if this has been a pattern. Unfortunately, there is no black and white answer here and will vary on a case-by-case basis.

Depending on your determination regarding the severity and pervasiveness, you need to consider if there a chance that employees will be able to move on working effectively in coexistence following this incident. If that manager has lost the respect of the employees, but you do not feel that the incident was severe enough, consider a transfer to another location. Keep in mind, however, that rumors may still spread to other locations. If you move forward with termination, remember that disciplinary action of any type should only be shared with the employee that action concerns. I would, however, recommend following up with Tiffany as the claimant and letting her know that you have taken action as you deemed necessary following the scope of your investigation (again this does not require specific details though).

The final item that you will want to look out for post-resolution is signs of retaliation, which can come from a few different arenas. The most obvious source of retaliation would be from Ron if he continues to work with Tiffany. This could come in the form of negative performance reviews, or even something subtler like scheduling her for the worst shifts. If Ron leaves that location or the company, other managers could even pick up the mantle of his grudge out of fear that Tiffany would report their actions. An unexpected form of retaliation could even come from Tiffany’s coworkers, who now single her out because they miss having a “fun” boss. I recommend squashing any such behavior before it has a chance to escalate, both to protect the company from further liability and to uphold the tenets of your harassment reporting policy.

I hope that this information helps resolve the drama. I’m confident that you will get back into the groove shortly!

StratEx HR (aka Groovemaster)