In early December, fast-food chain Chipotle Mexican Grill settled a lawsuit in which a male employee alleged he was sexually harassed by his female supervisor. He also alleged that he was later subjected to retaliation by his supervisor after he reported her behavior. Chipotle has agreed to pay $95,000 to the employee and make substantial changes to their sexual harassment policies and training in order to settle the sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
According to the EEOC's suit, Austin Melton, a manager at a San Jose Chipotle store who was 22 years old at the time and was forced to endure pervasive verbal and physical harassment by his female supervisor. His supervisor propositioned Melton and his then-girlfriend for sex, touched him inappropriately, and posted a "scoreboard" in the main office to track the staff's sexual activities.
When Melton reported the harassment to upper management, no action was taken to stop the harassment. In fact, he faced further mistreatment by his supervisor including instructing employees not to speak to him and locking him in a walk-in freezer. After Chipotle failed to adequately address the harassment, Melton quit.
Such alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex-based harassment. After an investigation by the EEOC and after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its voluntary conciliation process, the EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
The three-year consent decree settling the lawsuit provides $95,000 to Melton in lost wages and compensatory damages. The decree also requires Chipotle to develop and implement additional policies, procedures, and trainings at 27 restaurants in the South Bay area to ensure harassment-free workplaces and enhance accountability and oversight of managers, supervisors, and employees. The fast-food chain will provide tailored anti-discrimination trainings to its leadership and employees, make its EEO policies available to employees, track and report all complaints of sex harassment or retaliation it receives from its employees, and post a notice to employees about the consent decree and employees' rights under federal law.
According to Melton, "This was my first job after high school, and it was hard to speak up about the harassment to management and then to the EEOC. But it was the right thing to do. I hope this settlement will help to make the restaurants a better and safer workplace for everyone. I am thankful to the EEOC for standing up for me and seeing this through."
EEOC Trial Attorney James H. Baker said, "Austin was simply trying to do his job, as he worked to support himself and his girlfriend. He faced conditions that no employee should have to accept in exchange for a paycheck." Baker also stated, "Federal laws protect workers from sexual harassment and sexual abuse, regardless of their gender."
While workplace harassment committed by a female employee against a male employee is far less common, HR professionals need to be cognizant that it does happen. One study revealed that 37% of men reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, though a smaller amount actually bring charges. According to the EEOC, roughly 16% of sexual harassment charges filed are brought by male workers.
"Combating workplace harassment is a top priority for the EEOC, and it is especially critical that we protect young employees, who may be particularly vulnerable to harassment and less familiar with their rights," said EEOC San Francisco District Director William Tamayo. "We commend Chipotle for taking meaningful steps to ensure that such harassment is not fostered in its restaurants."
According to the EEOC's Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, younger workforces are at increased risk of harassment. Organizations and HR professionals should pay particular attention to ensure that young, inexperienced employees are encouraged to speak up about unwelcome conduct. This case is also a good reminder that not all employees that experience sexual harassment are women.
Prevention is the best tool to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. Employers are encouraged to take steps necessary to prevent sexual harassment from occurring. They should clearly communicate to employees that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. They can do so by providing sexual harassment training to their employees and by establishing an effective complaint or grievance process and taking immediate and appropriate action when an employee complains.
Additional ASE Resources
Harassment Prevention – Register employees for ASE’s next Harassment Prevention course being held January 21st 9:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. This course will define various types of harassment in the workplace with a special focus on sexual harassment. Participants will learn the legal definition of harassment and the various types of situations that could be perceived as harassment. It will also identify proactive preventive measures that could and should be undertaken by organizations. Save 10% by registering by January 15th with discount code TD10. Register here.
This course is also available as an on-site, company-wide training course. For more information please contact Tony Kaylin.
Sources: EEOC Press Release 12/4/2019, Forbes 12/10/2019