Protecting your employees and franchisees against sexual harassment is more important than you think
The culture of endemic sexual harassment across varied workplaces – from politics and sport to big retail and entertainment – has had a shone on it in recent years.
The #MeToo movement has given those who’ve experienced such behaviour the confidence to make complaints and not give up on pursuing justice. Businesses should now realise sexual harassment in any organisation isn’t only morally wrong, it can carry huge risk – employment tribunals, considerable fines and irrevocable reputational damage.
And given the clear extent of the problem, it would be naïve for owners of franchise systems to expect their organisation to be completely free of sexual harassment issues.
In May 2019, McDonald’s US branch faced action after a group of 25 women in 20 cities led sexual harassment complaints against the whole brand with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Three other complaints were led as civil rights lawsuits. The claimants alledged the company had done nothing to keep women safe while working at its franchise and corporate-owned restaurants.
While the company says it isn’t liable for working conditions at independently owned franchised units, the issue of joint employer liability is yet to be resolved in the courts. Should the judgment go against McDonald’s, it may well have implications for franchisors worldwide.
This isn’t a first for McDonald’s. Over the years it's implemented sexual harassment training for managers and set up a reporting hotline. But female workers still seemingly don’t believe the company is doing enough to protect them.
As ever with franchising, there are layers of potential issues and impacts. Some responsibilities are legal, others are moral.
As an employer, you have a duty of care to ensure your workplace is harassment free. Likewise, as employers your franchisees have the same duty of care to their staff.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission guidance encompasses all workplace contexts and related activities – these include office functions and parties, training courses and conferences – and says sexual harassment can be perpetrated by workers and non-workers, including contractors, agency staff, clients or customers.
Franchisors have the same duty of protection to their franchisees, so a zero-tolerance policy throughout an organisation will provide safety for all the brand's workers.
You can start with your own company culture. Make it undeniably clear to your employees that sexual harassment is prohibited from your workplace and that any occurrences will face severe consequences. This can be further reiterated through an anti-harassment policy and staff training.
You should be confident you have policies and procedures in place to deal with allegations of sexual harassment in scenarios like a supplier harassing a franchisee in the bar after dinner at your conference, one franchisee accusing another of sexual harassment, an employee accusing a franchisee of sexual harassment, a customer complaining to head office about sexual harassment by the franchisee or a franchisor’s employee accusing a franchisee of sexual harassment.
I would advise putting in place policies, procedures and the necessary coverage in your franchise and supplier agreements so you can act swiftly and fairly. Communicate these policies to employees, franchisees, contractors and suppliers alike, before effective implementation, monitoring and review.
You should also have an appropriate procedure for reporting harassment, protecting victims and taking action if it occurs.