In Hooters of Ontario Mills [pdf], an NLRB Administrative Law Judge found that a California franchisee of Hooters unlawfully fired a waitress for complaining about a bikini contest that she perceived as fixed. In the same decision, the ALJ also concluded that the restaurant maintained numerous illegal polices in its employee handbook.
Alexis Hanson, a Hooter Girl in an Ontario, California, outpost of the beer-and-wings establishment, complained to management that she believed that bar’s annual bikini contest was rigged. After the contest, she was terminated for “cursing at” the winner and the store’s Marketing Director. When she protested that she hadn’t cursed at anyone, the manager changed her tune and told Hanson, “Okay. Well, then you are being terminated for your negative social media posts.”
The ALJ concluded that Hanson’s discharge was unlawfully motivated by her protected concerted activity (i.e., her complaints to the manager about the bikini contest). The ALJ was persuaded by the fact that the employer had failed to conduct an investigation before firing Hanson, and also by its shifting reasons for her termination.
The ALJ also concluded that a variety of policies in the restaurant’s employee handbook were overly broad violations of employees’ rights to engage in protected concerted activity:
- NEVER discuss tips with other employees or guests. Employees who do so are subject to discipline up to and including termination.
- Insubordination to a manager or lack of respect and cooperation with fellow employees or guests may result in discipline up to and including termination.
- Disrespect to our guests including discussing tips, profanity or negative comments or actions may result in discipline up to and including termination.
- The unauthorized dispersal of sensitive Company operating materials or information to any unauthorized person or party may result in discipline up to and including termination. This includes, but is not limited to, recipes, policies, procedures, financial information, manuals or any other information in part or in whole as contained in any Company records.
- Be respectful to the Company, other employees, customers, partners, and competitors. Refrain from posting offensive language or pictures that can be viewed by coworkers and clients. Refrain from posting negative comments about Hooters or coworkers. In all cases, NEVER publish any information regarding a coworker or customer.
- Any other action or activity that the Company reasonably believes represents a threat to the smooth operation, goodwill or profitability of its business may result in discipline up to and including termination.
What are the takeaways from this case?
- These employees were non-union. This case serves as a reminder that the NLRA’s protected-concerted-activity rules apply to union and non-union shops.
- It’s debatable whether complaints about a workplace bikini contest constitute protected concerted activity. In this case, however, the ALJ appeared to be more persuaded by what the manager did not do in response to the complaints, as opposed to what the employee complained about. The manager did not investigate, and did not maintain a consistent reason for the termination. In other words, the reasons given for the terminated seemed to be a pretext to cover up something else—retaliation for Hanson’s protected concerted activity. The moral of this story? No matter the situation, thorough investigations and maintain a consistent story will save your bacon in many workplace lawsuits.
- As often happens in theses cases, the termination served as an entre for the NLRB to review (and overturn) workplace policies as overly broad. If you don’t want the NLRB to see your policies, don’t fire employees for protected concerted activity. Most of these cases get to the Board because someone was fired, not because someone just decided, out of the blue, to challenge a handbook.