Harassment in Hospitality: How Can We Prevent It?

NATIONAL REPORT—2011 marked a significant year for hospitality. That year, a French financier was arrested and accused of assaulting a housekeeping employee at a New York hotel, gaining not only significant attention from the media, but from the industry.

“In turn, hospitality industry unions that represent hotel workers have been advocating for employee safety rules in hotels, such as harassment training for all classifications of employees, more streamlined and available reporting options for employees and even panic buttons in hotel rooms as some unions have demanded in their labor agreements,” said Marta M. Fernandez, partner/chair/labor & employment department, Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell LLP (JMBM).

Not only that, but harassment complaints and lawsuits have both increased along with legislation passed to hold hospitality owners and operators accountable for harassment and other illegal acts taking place on-property.

Fernandez explained that human resources is charged with enforcement, but the law holds the organization fully responsible for all the acts of its “agents.”

“So, from an owner’s or operator’s perspective, if even a fairly low level assistant manager engages in harassment or simply fails to act appropriately when he or she ‘knew or should have known’ that there was inappropriate conduct going on, such as failing to report or take appropriate remedial action, the organization as a whole will be liable,” she said.

So, why is this such a pervasive issue in hospitality? Why does the industry continue to combat harassment despite the increased legislation? Fernandez said that it isn’t so much that harassment in hospitality is different than in other industries, but more that hospitality provides a workplace environment where harassment can thrive.

“Many employees, such as housekeepers, work in spread out physical spaces; there are isolated areas in hotels and guestrooms where employees might have to work alone; workers are employed for the late-night shifts where supervision may be lacking or scarce; alcohol is readily available; and, of course, there are many low income wage earners who are statistically less likely to raise complaints about harassment than their higher wage-earner counterparts,” Fernandez said.

On top of that, there’s often a seasonal or part-time workforce, which is difficult to educate on corporate policies.

“Traditionally, due to these factors, the industry has been viewed as a more permissive workplace culture for loose behavior than an office setting employer would be, for example,” she said.

According to Fernandez, most claims are between supervisors and subordinates, but co-worker harassment and guest harassment toward employees are on the rise and aren’t always sexual in nature.

“The type of harassment involves everything from claims of a hostile working environment which might arise from foul language being used by cook staff in the kitchen to outright sexual battery by a guest toward a housekeeper,” Fernandez said.

Prevention, Fernandez explained, begins with training, but hospitality has had a struggle in investing resources in this.

“The investment has always been in in guest services and correctly so, but in doing so there has been a general neglect of human resources training,” she said, advising the industry to rethink its approach, but that’s often challenging in an industry that relies heavily on part-time, student and transient workers.

“Prevention starts as a cultural change where leadership is willing to train and empower managers and supervisors and human resources to accept complaints and investigate them properly, as required by law, without fear of being branded a troublemaker. And then after the appropriate investigatory steps are taken, there is the right kind of remedial action and all these steps are properly documented,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez also advises that hotel owners and operators protect themselves by securing an audit from legal counsel to identify vulnerabilities in legal and cultural compliance. And, if there is an incident of harassment on property, there need to be policies in place that comply with federal and state laws, which need to be followed.

“As we have seen, with the increase of lawsuits against major organizations and owners in the entertainment industry, hospitality industry owners and operators can be held liable for harassment that occurs on the property even where policies are fully in place if they are not enforced, misconduct is overlooked or there is a culture of allowing bad behavior to continue,” Fernandez said.

While employee training gains attention and legislation continues to be passed protecting the innocent, the industry still has more work to do.

“California, for example, just passed a law requiring the industry to train employees on human trafficking and how to spot the signs on its property,” Fernandez said. “You can imagine a scenario where a hotel has failed to provide the training and events occur on premises that could be construed as ‘human trafficking.’ The possibilities are there for significant lawsuits. Like it or not, the industry needs to confront the changing climate and revamp its approach and invest in human resources.”