Fast food chain Chipotle subjected young female employees to “egregious and ongoing” sexual harassment so severe that two employees quit their jobs, according to a lawsuit.
Legal documents filed in America by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission allege that the Mexican-style food company “cultivated a toxic work environment when it allowed a male service manager and a male crew member to sexually harass several young female employees” at one of its branches in Washington state between 2019 and 2020.
The legal documents claim that, in 2019, a general manager failed to investigate concerns that another manager, who was 29, made “unwelcome sexual comments, touching, and requests for sex” towards a 16-year-old female colleague.
But the EEOC said that, instead of investigating the matter, the general manager “warned the teen she could be fired for engaging in an inappropriate relationship with the service manager”. The same general manager then continued to schedule the teen to work a closing shift with the alleged harasser. Allegedly, this then resulted in the accused sexually assaulting the teenage worker, and then subjecting others to harassment.
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The EEOC also alleges that in 2020, Chipotle management again failed to take appropriate action upon receiving complaints of sexual harassment regarding a 24-year-old crew member who made comments about the bodies of several workers and referred to them with unwelcome nicknames like “mama,” “sweetheart,” and “baby girl.” Chipotle agreed to investigate their complaints but permitted the alleged harasser to return to the workplace where he angrily confronted those who had complained about the harassment. Fearing for their safety because of Chipotle's inaction, two workers quit.
“This case involves workers in their teens and early 20s. These are their first impressions they will they form about the workplace, and it is devastating when an employer permits sexual harassment to continue despite repeated complaints,” said Nancy Sienko, director for the EEOC’s San Francisco District, which includes Washington state. “We want to send a clear and opposing message: every worker has a right to a workplace free from sexual harassment, and the EEOC will hold employers accountable.”
The EEOC said it is seeking lost wages and monetary compensation for the emotional distress the workers suffered, in addition to punitive damages, and injunctive relief to ensure Chipotle's workers have adequate protection from sexual harassment in the future.
Chipotle had not responded to requests for comment from several media outlets at the time of publication.
Worrying claims of sexual harassment being ignored
Chipotle employees may not be the only ones suffering from such issues. In October 2021, US-based McDonald’s workers staged a strike amid claims that the company was mishandling sexual harassment claims.
As reported by the BBC, employees of the fast food giant walked out in 12 major US cities, claiming that the company had "largely ignored" frontline workers who raise complaints. Activists also claimed the firm has a “culture of harassment.”
Protestors said the strike, which took place on October 26th, was in response to accusations that a Pittsburgh McDonalds manager sexually assaulted a 14-year-old worker on the job.
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“McDonald’s STILL refuses to take responsibility for the countless women & teenagers who have endured harassment on the job at stores across the globe. This problem HAS to finally be addressed!” the activists wrote on Twitter.
Workers have staged five walkouts since 2018 over what they described as a “culture of harassment”, during which time McDonald’s global CEO, British Steve Easterbrook, was fired after it was revealed he had a relationship with an employee.
And it seems that the majority of companies are failing to instil sexual harassment training among their workforce, according to data. A recent TalentLMS and Purple Campaign report polled over 1,200 employees, and found that 92% of women surveyed said that unwanted physical contact counts as sexual harassment, compared to 78% of men surveyed.
Suggestive remarks were considered harassment by 88% of women and just 69% of men; likewise, sexual jokes were frowned upon by 86% of women and 69% of men. Additionally, 73% of women surveyed said comments regarding someone's gender identity and expression were sexual harassment, compared to 47% of men.
“There is still a long way to go in educating employers and employees,” said Christina Gialleli, Director of People Ops at TalentLMS, said in the research.
“With over 75% of women and 85% of men reporting they feel safer at work after having received training, it’s clear that sexual harassment training needs to be a part of every company’s yearly curriculum.”
Preventing sexual harassment
According to Acas, sexual harassment is “unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature” and the law protects employees, workers, contractors, self-employed and job applicants from this.
For this to be considered as sexual harassment, the unwanted behaviour must have either violated someone’s dignity, whether it was intended or not, or created a hostile environment for them, whether it was intended or not, the governmental body adds.
Data carried out by the Everyday Sexism Project and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) discovered that 52% of women have been victims of unwanted sexual behaviours at work - from groping to inappropriate jokes.
As such, it is crucial that employers do all that they can to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.
In a previous interview, Katie Hodson, Partner and Head of Employment at SAS Daniels LLP, told HR Grapevine that in instances of sexual harassment, employers should have “robust policies in place”.
She previously pointed out that “staff need to be clear that this behaviour is unacceptable and aware of the consequences of breaching the policies. This could be supported by staff training”.
“Further, any and all complaints should be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly. This would include asking relevant questions and looking at the evidence with a clear and unbiased viewpoint,” Hodson concluded.