Time to act: how franchises can avoid sexual harassment in the workplace

After 2017 saw people become more vigilant against sexual harassment, franchises cannot afford to take sleazy behaviour in the workplace lightly

Time to act: how franchises can avoid sexual harassment in the workplace

By October last year it was clear that things had changed forever. Following the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the rise of the #MeToo campaign had seen women from all over the world out men for their sleazy behaviour. But while previous movements had come and gone, this one seemed particularly unyielding. People no longer turned a blind eye to questionable conduct. No wonder then that the public outcry was so unforgiving when it was revealed in January that some of Britain’s most powerful men happily showed up to the now infamous Presidents Club charity dinner, where several female staff members were groped and harassed after being told to wear short black dresses with matching underwear.

And franchises are certainly not immune to criticism. The industry was reminded of this fact in February when the publication Vox revealed that in 2017, 60 female employees at IHOP, the restaurant chain, had accused the American franchise of nurturing an environment where sexual harassment was allegedly allowed to run rampant. In one particularly gruesome case a 16-year old girl said she was left terrified of going to work after the general manager at the restaurant she worked for kept making advances towards her. At one point he allegedly threatened to become violent if she didn’t have sex with him.

At the time, DineEquity, the owner of IHOP, issued a statement that said: “Harassment of all nature has no place in any organisation, including those affiliated with DineEquity.” It added that IHOP’s franchisees independently own their restaurants and adhere to national and local regulations. “Additionally, our brands are guided by core values,” the statement continued. “While our franchisees have a strong track record of doing the right thing, failure to adhere to those values carries consequences, up to and including the termination of their franchise license.” While these allegations were filed across the pond, they illustrate how franchises all over the globe must be vigilant against sexual harassment in the workplace.

Given franchisees are technically independent business owners, they and not the franchisor are usually responsible for their employees’ behaviour. “But it depends on what the franchise agreement says,” says Jane Crosby, employment and commercial litigation solicitor at Hart Brown, the law firm. “Usually it will be the franchisee who has the obligations.” This is simply due to the fact that franchisees employ their personnel, not the franchisor. That being said, franchisors can still influence policies through things like the operations manual and the franchise agreement. “This is about leading from the front and showing that it won’t be tolerated in your organisation,” she says.

However, before franchises write down their policies they have to understand that sexual harassment is legally defined as any unwelcome sexual behaviour in the workplace, whether it be physical, written or verbal. “What may be considered a joke to one employee can be very offensive to another,” says Amanda Boyd, professional support lawyer at LHS Solicitors, the law firm. In other words, what constitutes as harassment is, to some degree, dependent on the offence someone takes in someone else’s behaviour. “Consequently, employers should take care to ensure that sexualised jokes and behaviours are not normalised within the workplace and accepted as ‘just a bit of banter’,” says Boyd.

To ensure unwanted behaviour is held at a bare minimum, franchisors are advised to introduce clear policies on the matter. “That way everyone knows what their obligations are,” says Crosby. Not only should the policies define sexual harassment but should also outline how to report grievances, how the employer should investigate accusations and how sleazy behaviour should be disciplined. Additionally, while setting up policies is important, franchisees and franchisors must make sure they are enforced and that employees get regular training on these matters. “It’s not just a box-ticking exercise,” says Crosby.

Importantly, when a case is brought to the employer’s attention, it’s important they act professionally. “No matter what the claim is it must be taken seriously,” says Boyd. While each case should be judged on its own facts, depending on how severe the accusations are the franchisee or the franchisor should consider suspending the alleged perpetrator during the investigation. Moreover, employers should ensure confidentiality towards both parties. Importantly, whatever the result of the investigation the employer should go out of their way to document the investigation. “Employees should be left in no doubt that every complaint will be fully investigated,” says Boyd.

While being serious about this issue won’t prevent all bad behaviours, it will help employers protect themselves in potential employment tribunals. “It’s not a 100% defence because you can never be entirely protected,” says Crosby. “But it helps if you can show that you are making a strong commitment to prevent it.” In other words, if you’ve gone out of your way to protect employees and can document the actions you’ve taken when a staff member has reported sexual harassment, then the perpetrator could be held solely responsible for their actions. “It won’t stop accusations against employers but if you’re dealing with it reasonably it offers good protection,” says Crosby.

Following the rise of the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns, it’s safe to say that the times they are a-changing and by taking sexual harassment in the workplace seriously, franchises can ensure they evolve with them.

Eric Johansson
Eric Johansson