A lawsuit filed against McDonald’s Corp. is making news and demonstrating the legal risks of untrained supervisors.  The lawsuit was filed by ten employees alleging race discrimination against McDonald’s Corp. and a local franchisee in Virginia.  The lawsuit is making news as McDonald’s Corp. may be held liable for the franchisee actions based on the joint employer standard.  Regardless of how the court rules on the joint employer issue, the facts of Betts v. McDonald’s Corp. provide a valuable lesson in the importance of thorough supervisor training on all aspects of the laws prohibiting discrimination.

The plaintiffs in Betts v. McDonalds Corp., ten African American and Hispanic employees, allege their firing constituted race discrimination in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Plaintiffs further allege low-level supervisors and store managers made numerous statements which support their claims of race discrimination.  The complaint alleges managers commented on the race of employees, including statements referring to employees as “too dark,” “ghetto,” or “dirty Mexican,” comments such as “there were too many black people in the store,” and a regular reference to one franchise as “the ghetto store.”  The employees also allege they were discharged for no reason other than that they “didn’t fit the profile” they wanted at the store, a phrase allegedly used by supervisors during the terminations.

Supervisors and managers are often tasked with hiring and firing decisions and are the face of the company to employees.  Supervisor interactions with employees are often the key evidence in claims of discrimination against employers.  Without proper training on federal, state and local laws prohibiting discrimination, managers and supervisors pose a great risk for employers.   Supervisors and managers at all levels should be trained on the effect their words and actions can have on employees and the company.  Supervisors and managers must understand how behaviors and statements support complaints of discrimination, and the unacceptable nature of such behavior.  In Missouri and some other jurisdictions, supervisors should be fully informed that they can also be held individually liable for their own discriminatory actions under the Missouri Human Rights Act.

Employers can take steps to minimize the risks posed by supervisors by providing thorough supervisor training and regular training for all employees.  These steps include: (1) a clear anti-discrimination policy and a commitment to a workplace free of discrimination; (2) a published procedure providing employees multiple options for reporting complaints of inappropriate behavior; (3) a prompt and thorough investigation into every employee complaint; and (4) regular, on-going training for supervisors and employees explaining employee rights, company policies, and the obligation of all employees to maintain a workplace free of discrimination.

While training cannot eliminate all employee claims of employment discrimination, it can certainly minimize the risk and bring any concerns to the employer’s attention at a time when the issues may be more easily resolved.  Certainly the statements allegedly made by supervisors in the McDonald’s case will be front and center if the case reaches trial and, if believed by a jury, damning evidence against the employer.  Do not assume your supervisors know comments such as those alleged in the McDonald’s case are problematic.  The fact that claims such as these are so prevalent leads to the conclusion that employers should not rely of basic training and common sense to protect a company from potential liability.  Cases like Betts v. McDonald’s Corp. are a great reminder to employers of the importance of proper supervisor training.

The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters for almost sixty years, and are available to discuss these issues and others.  As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.