Lady Justice & A Shot Of Tequila

“Everyone is crying out for peace, yes, none is crying out for justice” -Peter Tosh

Turns out that this blog isn’t just about food. It’s also about injustice.

Our business is a unique one. When I was coming up in the food biz in the eighties and early nineties the back-of-the-house in a restaurant was a wild place to be. And fun too. There was always a raging battle going on between the hardcore beer and tequila swilling cooks in the trenches, and the prima donna waitstaff in their pressed shirts and ties with pockets full of cash and cocaine. At the end of the night though all bets were off, all hostilities forgiven, and we were a happy (drunken) family that would close down the closest bar together. Sometimes we’d go home together, sometimes alone. But we’d live to do it again another day—always. And a talented cook or waiter could get a job anywhere, anytime.

Those days are gone. Our world has changed and left no one unaffected. Corporate politics have taken over every facet of our lives and careers. Good for some, not so much for others. I am “others”. The story I need to tell here is a controversial one—the one that no paper will print and no news anchor will recite.

I got fired—again—this time for sexual harassment. A close friend got fired for sexual harassment within a couple weeks of my fiasco. My previous job I lost for ethnic harassment. Truth is that neither of us did anything that merits what our employers’ solution caused, and will continue to cause for the rest of our careers. And we are not alone!

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), in 2006 employers in the U.S. paid out over $48.8 million in damages for sexual harassment claims. $59.8 million was paid out for non-sexual types of harassment. Between the two categories there were 35,059 grievances filed with the Commission. Of those thirty-five thousand plus claims 18,991 were found to be without merit. That’s over half. Those are the folks whose stories are never heard—until now.

In early 2007 I was hired for a lesser position by the largest foodservice company on planet earth. I was to be promoted to a reasonably prominent position within a few weeks but I never was. I was given the responsibilities of that position because there was no one else to take them, but I was never given the title or the salary that went with them.

I was left to manage a demographic of people who refused to rise to the level that was expected of them. They didn’t have to. They had been there for years and would inevitably outlive me or any other manager that passed through. They knew this. And they also knew that the laws of political correctness and human resources would always be on their side. Never mind that our labor costs were soaring, our sanitation grade was plummeting, and our bottom line always had a little dash to the left of it. These people had jobs for life. And they had my boss’s phone number on speed-dial.

The boss figured out that business was rapidly changing for the worse and that I should never have been hired so I was transferred to another property. Now I didn’t want to be there, they didn’t need me, and things just didn’t go well. Accusations of being difficult to get along with followed me and soured the relationship with my new supervisors immediately.

We had in this new location a lovely young administrative assistant from Mexico. She spoke mediocre English, had absolutely no sense of humor, spent the day in her office sending Spanish instant messages to her friends and shopping online. She embellished our financial records and she refused to utilize the time clock to record her hours. She was the person who prepared our payroll and typically paid herself for forty or more hours when she was usually only there for 25 and only worked for 6 of those. Yet, you guessed it…job for life…no matter what!

Each month we received a packet of training materials that we were to present to our staff in a brief round-table forum. This particular month the packet we got included only the Spanish version of the materials. It was this same week that we were extremely slow and bored. And I had decided to quit smoking. This never goes well for me.

Now, I love the Mexican people. I’ve never had a problem with Latin people on any level, but I thought that it was hilarious that we had gotten these posters only in Spanish. I thought, “Heck, I guess that not only is our country going Spanish but so is our company.” I saluted this concept and took a moment to honor my Hispanic friends’ culture. I taped the posters to the wall above the stove. On either end of the line of posters I proudly displayed the flag of Mexico which I had printed off of the internet. And I thought, from my travels in the southwestern states, that no display of Latin heritage is complete without the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe (a specific rendering of the Holy Virgin Mother). Apparently this was not remotely amusing to…well…anyone. Pity.

Three weeks later, long after a formal apology was made and accepted, I was called in to my boss’s office and fired for “creating a hostile work environment”. I was never asked to tell my side of the story. I was never approached by anyone from Human Resources. I was not given the opportunity to face my accuser—in fact I was not allowed to know who my accuser was.

Nearly a year of my life washed away as if it never happened. A job I wished I’d never taken turned into a job that I can’t even list on my resume, lest I have to try to explain this to the next person who won’t hire me because I’m a liability. Twenty-five years in this business…

Reminds me of the poor guy that builds bridges his whole life, yet no one will call him a bridge builder.  But suck just one…

Well, you get the point.

Before long I found myself in another position that paid better and was the most fun job I’d had in years and years. My first day I hired a female server, and a week later our chef hired her live-in boyfriend. She had confided in me that he was abusive and had quite a few personal problems that affected their relationship. We talked a good bit and became friends. She made it known that she had interest in becoming more than friends. I was flattered. I entertained the idea somewhat, but nothing ever happened between us. We had some brief but racy text message exchanges on two occasions but nothing else. She initiated both of those.

All of a sudden one day I was asked by my boss about some comments that I had allegedly made to her. I couldn’t deny them, but I also couldn’t conceal that they were solicited by her. She had called me a couple days before and said that the boyfriend had beaten her badly, and she wouldn’t return to work as long as he was there. He had caused other problems at work so we gladly let him go. Then she shows up with no signs whatsoever of being abused, and accuses me of sexual harassment.

The boss took my side. After he spoke with her and told her of my response she recanted her accusations in writing, admitted that she initiated the dialog between us, and said that she enjoyed working with me and had no intention of carrying this matter any further.

Two weeks later she made another statement that I had done several things that made her feel violated. Not one of those things had I done. Not one! She told my boss that she wouldn’t return to work as long as I was there. He again took my side and advised her that I would not be removed and that all measures would be taken to ensure that she and I were never alone together. The next day that she was scheduled she contacted me to say that she would not be back.

A week later I was fired for sexual harassment. I was not notified of what the reason was or who my accuser was. I was not given an opportunity to defend myself. I was told to turn in my keys and leave the premises immediately.

Two or three weeks later my best friend, who was very successful in his position of over 4 years in a large company, was terminated for sexual harassment. He was not asked to give his side of the story. He was not offered an opportunity to defend himself. He had made a harmless comment to a female coworker a few days before—a comment like thousands that were laughed off regularly in the kitchens of every restaurant I’ve ever worked in.

I got a new job pretty quickly and within a month a tenured (though unreliable and anti-productive) minority employee quit and threatened to sue me for creating a hostile work environment. That’s called harassment. I haven’t heard anything else about that one yet.

Do my friend and I see that we were immature, unthinking, and inappropriate in any of this? Hell yes! But listen, this guy has a wife (who understands his personality and supports him, thank God), and a mortgage. He had a career position for a span of time that can’t be ignored on his resume. He will have to spend the rest of his life explaining this little faux pas to every potential employer that reviews his otherwise unflawed background. To pay his bills he has had to take a job that is unchallenging and pays less than half what he had become accustomed to. And my case is not different.

Is this justice? Have the right people and the right causes been championed?

One legal definition of harassment requires that the harasser be told that his or her conduct is bothersome and asked to stop. At such point which the conduct continues it becomes harassment. With the figures listed at the beginning of this article it is easy to see why corporate America has altered the definition to eliminate any chance for liability.

I guess I just miss the good ol’ days—the days when people looked each other in the eye and settled their differences amongst themselves like adults. If someone is intentionally and repeatedly made to feel uncomfortable or threatened by some asshole with no ethics whatsoever, then that person should take action. Does that person deserve the opportunity to ruin someone’s life because of their inability to communicate their needs and boundaries? Do they deserve a financial reward? Should there be a question on a job application that asks, “Have you ever in confidence filed an exaggerated complaint against a coworker that resulted in their termination, and then hid behind your rights as a minority while you sit on your butt and suck the time clock dry”?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I’m just asking on behalf of the 54% that are the victims of unsubstantiated claims. These folks will spend the rest of their lives looking for the forgiving employer that will give them the chance to feed their families.

Their accusers will continue punching in at the same old clock year after year, filling a quota, stirring the pot, and wishing they’d have gotten that settlement.