Staying Out of the Frying Pan

By Craig Cowart

Craig Cowart

Last year, the whole country watched as celebrity chef Paula Deen found herself in the frying pan of bad publicity and damaging legal action. Now that the fire has more or less cooled, what lessons can employers and human resources professionals learn from what happened?

In March 2012, Lisa Jackson, a former general manager of Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House, filed a lawsuit against Deen and her brother alleging racial discrimination and sexual harassment. After some particularly inflammatory details of Deen’s deposition testimony became public, a firestorm of negative publicity erupted and essentially engulfed her business empire.

In August 2013, however, the Judge dismissed Jackson’s racial discrimination claim against Deen and the other defendants. The lawsuit made allegations of racially discriminatory treatment against African-American employees. However, the plaintiff – Lisa Jackson – is white. There was never any finding of liability against Deen and, at least in terms of the litigation, she did not “lose.”

Deen did, however, lose many lucrative endorsement deals. She also lost a lot of time, money, credibility, and energy that could have been used more productively. While we absolutely in no way condone Deen’s words, lessons learned in the aftermath of her ordeal may be applied to practically any employer or business owner.

For instance, following the suit’s dismissal, Ms. Jackson commented that she “assumed that all of (her) complaints about the workplace environment were getting to Paula Deen,” only to subsequently learn “this was not the case.” Employers should have complaint procedures ensuring that all complaints of discrimination and/or harassment are taken seriously and investigated. While not every complaint will reach the highest levels of management, employees should understand the complaint procedure and know that their complaint will be regarded seriously and investigated thoroughly.

The racial discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuit was filed against Deen and the other defendants in March 2012. It was only after Deen’s deposition testimony went public that the damage for Deen really started. Sometimes it is not the claim or even the lawsuit that causes the biggest problem for the employer. This is yet another reason to have the culture, policies, procedures, and practices in place that will minimize litigation risks.

In any event, a properly conducted investigation and resulting proper decision are needed for defense if litigation does ultimately result.

In short, I recommended this simple recipe for staying out the frying pan of costly and embarrassing litigation in 2014:

1. Carefully examine your business’s mission and culture. Peel off anything you notice that could encourage discrimination or harassment. Do not set aside for remaining steps.

2. Make sure every employee is educated at orientation about your policies and procedures prohibiting discrimination and harassment.

3. Mix in ongoing training for all employees. Make sure everyone knows how to lodge a complaint that will be taken seriously.

4. Soak all discrimination or harassment complaints in thorough and objective investigations. Use yield to make consistent, lawful decisions.

5. Never stop combining all ingredients.

Use this recipe on a daily basis and consult legal counsel about any questions that arise.

Craig Cowart is a partner in the Memphis office of Fisher & Phillips. He was recently elected President of the Memphis/Mid-South Chapter of the Federal Bar Association.