- A former employee has sued Sweetgreen, a nationwide chain of salad restaurants, alleging he was sexually harassed by both a co-worker and a manager and that his complaints to upper management about the treatment were ignored (Chirse v. Sweetgreen Inc. and Terry Armfield, No. 158419/2020 (N.Y., Oct. 9, 2020)).
- The plaintiff, a transgender man, said a co-worker "showed him pornographic pictures, told other employees they were dating and that plaintiff was her property," according to the complaint. The plaintiff also alleged that his manager harassed him and "routinely" referred to him with incorrect pronouns, despite the plaintiffs' protests. The plaintiff said his hours were reduced in retaliation and that he was eventually forced to quit.
- Sweetgreen did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Experts suggest that HR train managers — a common cause of employment law violations — to refrain from harassing behavior and to recognize and correct harassment from others.
It's also crucial for managers to escalate certain issues to HR so the employer can follow up on employee complaints, attorneys say. Chipotle, for example, agreed to make significant statewide changes after allegations of sexual harassment involving a female manager and a young worker were made. As part of the settlement, Chipotle agreed to pay $95,000 to the plaintiff; implement enhanced accountability and oversight of managers, supervisors and employees; and provide tailored anti-discrimination trainings to its leadership and employees.
Generally, to avoid liability in sexual harassment lawsuits, an employer must show that it tried to prevent and promptly correct the harassing behavior and that the employee failed to take advantage of the preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer. Swift and reasonable action by an employer can provide a strong legal defense: a court ruled last year that an employer was not liable for sexual harassment because it took prompt action reasonably calculated to stop alleged sexual harassment.
HR can create procedures for reporting harassment and discrimination that start with taking all complaints seriously, regardless of whether the alleged harassment is at the hands of a supervisor or co-worker, and making sure that complaints are promptly investigated, speakers told attendees at a 2018 conference. Employers should conduct harassment training at least once a year, with separate sessions for managers and employees, one attorney previously told HR Dive.
Employers should also be mindful about protections related to LGBT status. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender identity, although certain questions remain. Legal experts say that employers may opt to limit their liability by drafting policies on inclusion, including conventions around pronoun use. Chai Feldblum, Morgan Lewis partner and former U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) commissioner, previously told HR Dive that "if a co-worker or a manager consistently and intentionally uses the wrong name or pronoun to create a hostile work environment for the transgender employee, and nothing is done to stop that, the employer is putting itself at legal risk."