What to Do if You are Sexually Harassed by the Owner of Your Company

Tired bartender sitting in a chair

When you work for a small business, gender discrimination and sexual misconduct can feel very personal. Without an HR department to help, it may feel like you have nowhere to turn. Find out what to do if you are sexually harassed by the owner of your company.

In this blog post, I will review reports that Thomas Carter left his New York restaurants after accusations of sexual harassment. I will discuss whether anti-discrimination laws like Title VII and the New York State Human Rights Act protect against the conduct of company owners. Finally, I will explain what you can do if you are sexually harassed by the owner of your company.

New York Restaurant Owner Thomas Carter Faces Sexual Harassment Claims

Restaurateur Thomas Carter and his partner, chef Ignacio Mattos owned some of the hottest Manhattan restaurants from 2013 to 2017. Their spaces were held in high regard by critics, customers, and even the Obamas. But behind closed doors, employees say Carter created a “culture of fear” in his restaurants.

Eater New York published an article, that described Carter’s sexual harassment “has badly compromised the culture at his restaurants. Both women and men said that Carter subjected them to sexualized and otherwise inappropriate comments about their appearances and personal lives, as well as about female guests and his own sex life.” The article includes claims that Carter:

  • Inappropriately complimented a woman’s breasts
  • Attributed bruises to rough sexual play
  • Accusing female employees of having sexually transmitted infections
  • Claiming employees were promiscuous in front of fellow employees
  • Attributed a coworker’s pinkeye to a sexual act
  • Used gender and disability-related slurs

Some employees interviewed said the derogatory comments started as early as the job interview. Another described his restaurant as “the most toxic environment I’ve ever worked in.”

Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry

Experiencing sexual harassment in the restaurant industry is nothing new. The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), which advocates on behalf of servers and tip-based workers, reported that 80% of women in the restaurant industry have experienced sexual harassment by customers, coworkers, and managers. The EEOC says restaurant workers report twice as many sexual harassment complaints as would be suggested by their employment numbers. Even one of the whistleblowers in the Eater article acknowledged, “A lot of guys in this industry are hard to work with. . . . You don’t get to this position by being the good guy.”

One particular challenge in the restaurant industry is how many eateries, cafes, and other restaurants are owner-operated. In these small businesses, employees work side-by-side with their bosses. That can increase the chances that a worker will be sexually harassed by the owner of the company, rather than a coworker or manager. And that can make getting relief more difficult.

What to Do if You are Sexually Harassed by the Owner of Your Company

When you are sexually harassed by the owner of your company, there’s no one higher up to complain to. In larger businesses you may be able to confidentially file a complaint with the HR director, hiring manager, or even another shift supervisor. But when the person doing the harassment is the one who signs the checks it can be hard to find relief.

The good news is that federal and state anti-discrimination and sexual harassment laws apply just as strongly to owners as anyone else in the company. Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act requires employers to investigate and take reasonable steps to respond to allegations that anyone in the company has sexually harassed an employee. When employers’ efforts fall short, an employee may file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and eventually sue in federal court.

The New York State Human Rights Act goes even further. It requires all employers, no matter how few employees they have, to adopt a formal sexual harassment policy to protect their workers. The policies must allow for confidential sexual harassment complaints and investigations. They must also include discipline for supervisors and managers who allow sexual harassment to continue after receiving reports. The New York Human Rights Division hears complaints under the act. If a suitable solution can’t be reached, New York employees can file a lawsuit in state court.

Getting Results When You Are Sexually Harassed by the Owner of Your Company

Perhaps it was the stricter state and local laws, or the number of former employees willing to speak out. Whatever the reason, Carter has stepped away from his restaurants. In December 2018, his partner Mattos formally bought out all of his interest in the three establishments. Carter will not gain any further benefit from the company or its business.

No matter what industry you are in, if you have been sexually harassed by the owner of your company you will probably have to take your complaints outside the business. At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our sexual harassment attorneys understand the struggles that come with getting relief from a small business. We will meet with you and review your options including negotiations with your employer, formal complaints to the EEOC or the New York Human Rights Division, and formal lawsuits. We will work hard get you back to a comfortable working environment, and won’t be intimidated by the owner of the company. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.

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