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A recently filed lawsuit that involves the Hooters restaurant chain, sex discrimination, and retaliation, has been making headlines. But unlike the discrimination and retaliation lawsuits against Hooters we've become accustomed to seeing as a result of the adult entertainment aspect of the establishment, the restaurant isn't actually being sued here. Rather, a biomedical company is in the hot-seat due to a senior vice president's request to hold a meeting at a Hooters restaurant.
The high ranking executive proposed having a one-on-one lunch meeting with a female employee at Hooters. As shocking as that may be, in and of itself, what's more is that the executive allegedly stated that he liked the restaurant because he liked being served by attractive women. Although the employee suggested an alternative, and the meeting was not actually held at the Hooters, the employee, and her boss, were both terminated shortly after she filed a complaint about the proposed meeting location.
Although sexual harassment, hostile work environment, and discrimination claims all require a claimant to meet a relatively high burden, retaliation claims are a little different. In essence, if an employee has a subjective, good faith belief that sexual harassment or discrimination occurred, and they report or complain about it, then legal retaliation protections will protect the employee from being terminated, or receiving adverse actions, as a result of making the complaint. Even if there was never any actual discrimination or sexual harassment, so long as the employee's belief is reasonable, from their perspective, a retaliation claim is cognizable.
While it may seem like an employer can easily escape retaliation liability by showing there was a non-discriminatory, non-retaliatory, reason for the termination, the final decision will usually rest with a jury, or fact finder, which may not believe an employer's stated reason.
Beware the Hooters Headache
Employers need to be rather wary about establishments like Hooters that mix adult entertainment with dining or other activities. What some employees view as paying dues, hazing, or just kidding around, others may find offensive, embarrassing, discriminatory, or simply unwanted. Even if a staff is all one gender, team building events and meetings should avoid establishments that promote sexuality.
Sexual harassment and discrimination can occur between co-workers of the same sex, even when all parties involved are heterosexual.