Saturday, January 8, 2011

Lessons from Fast Food #1: Sexual Harassment

At my workplace, our on-boarding process consists of around 7-10 hours of video training. It's mostly watching, with a bunch of little activities to do in the process (it's on a touch-screen monitor).

In this video training, there is a section of at least a half hour on sexual harassment. It describes the rules, the statutes, the language, and even has little video scenarios of inappropriate actions by coworkers, vendors and management. It really does its best to be crystal clear about what is OK and what isn't.

For this reason, I was certain I would never have to deal with the issue as a manager. Ha!

I should have known. He had a period where everyone making really racist jokes all the time was becoming an issue (fast food, btw, is the only workplace I know of where making racist jokes all the time becomes an issue, over time, instead of being an issue right away). If people can't grasp that making jokes about Mexicans in front of Mexicans isn't appropriate, why would I assume sexual harassment was an easy concept?

But it wasn't, of course, until my second-to-last week of working there.

I'd recommended for hire a young man, we'll call him Nacho Libre, because he'd worked at another fast food place for three years solid, and that's a good record in the business. He was very polite in the interview, not stellar in his answers but nothing out of the ordinary.

Except one thing: he had a look of mischief in his eyes. That's really the best way I could put it. I told my manager that that was the only reservation I had about hiring him. She was confused at first, but then she interviewed him and completely understood. We hired him, and he seemed to work out fantastically well.

Then, after maybe a week, I started hearing complaints that he was, in the words of other supervisors, a "total creeper." Enough so that one of the supervisors didn't want to work alone with him.

So the next day I work, Nacho and I have, seriously, about 8 minutes of overlap on our shifts, and in the time span he managed to say not one but two inappropriate things to me. The first one was mild, something about how I looked thinner. Borderline, so I didn't say anything. I had, however, begun to think about how I would handle it next time, and its a good thing, because mere moments later the following conversation happened:

Nacho: So do you go by Kim or Kimberlee?
Me: Usually Kimberlee. But it doesn't matter, either is fine.

Nacho: I think I'm going to go with Kim. It sounds more erotic.


Ugh.

So I immediately stopped what I was doing and told him that that was completely inappropriate to say at work. He tried to explain he hadn't meant it that way, he was trying to say that Kim sounded cooler, or whatever. But I did my best to explain to him that he just can't say stuff like that, and that he needs to be careful, because I wouldn't want to see him fired over something like that. I made sure to include that last part, because that kind of harassment is just a lawsuit waiting to happen; he needed to know that his job was on the line with that kind of behavior.

I then went to the two other managers who were there at the time (one being the original manager who wouldn't work with Nacho alone, and the other a young trainee manager) and told them very clearly something that I hope they really understand and internalize, and the lesson I really want you to take away with you:
"I talked with Nacho about this, and make it clear that his job is on the line. If it happens again, at all, even one time, you need to write him up for it and explain that he will be fired if it happens again."

It seems simple. But given that Nacho has not made any such comments to anyone else since our little episode, I strongly suspect that nobody had said a word to him before about the problem. As in, he sexually harassed a member of our management team, and she ignored it. She let it continue, even though it was to the point where she wouldn't work with him, and she apparently still said nothing.

Even if it seems obvious, people do not know there is a problem if they're not told! If an employee does something in front of you and you don't say anything, the natural assumption is that that behavior is acceptable.

You would be shocked how quickly problems go away when they are addressed immediately and effectively!

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