A California National Labor Relations Board judge ruled that a Hooters franchise cannot force its employees to act in a respectful manner toward customers, nor could managers punish employees for insubordination.
The local NLRB judge ordered the Hooters franchise to post a sign on its premises reading "WE WILL NOT maintain or enforce a provision in our Employee Handbook that prohibits employees from being disrespectful to the Company, other employees, customers, partners, and competitors, posting no offensive language or pictures and no negative comments about the Company or coworkers of the Company" after declaring such policies illegal, according to an NLRB ruling issued on May 18.
The case stemmed from a complaint about a rigged bikini contest that led the franchise to fire waitress Alexis Hanson. Hanson was fired in 2013 after she alleged that her co-worker "[Pamela] Noble had rigged the [bikini] contest with her best friend as a judge," according to the NLRB investigation.
Managers soon had to call the police after Hanson confronted Noble about her bikini aptitude with a string of obscenities.
"Noble said she was intimidated and frightened and that employee Karen took her back to the restaurant and she never saw Panitch and Hanson again that evening," the NLRB report says.
Despite the intimidation and foul language, the NLRB judge ordered the franchise give Hanson backpay and rehire her "without prejudice to her seniority."
Hooters did not respond to request for comment.
Veteran management-side labor lawyer David Phippen of Constangy, Brooks, and Smith said that the unusual case could have a ripple effect throughout the entire economy.
Rules about respecting customers are designed to help employees keep their jobs, according to Phippen, since they spell out a code of conduct necessary for employment. Employees could find themselves out of a job with no "fair notice" without them, he warned.
"If these rules are not lawful under the Obama majority NLRB view, then almost no rule out there is lawful under that view," he said. "Why as a matter of public policy would we want the employer's to stop giving employees advanced ‘fair notice’ of what they might be terminated for?"
Customers were nonplussed by the decision. A frequent Hooters patron, who requested anonymity so he could speak freely, said that he may cut back on his bi-weekly visits if such policies go into effect nationwide.
"I wouldn’t go anymore," he said. "I need them to be smiling."
The case has yet to reach the national, Obama-appointed board in Washington, D.C., which has the final say on the matter. Phippen says the board, which has a reputation for thwarting long-standing legal precedent, would likely moderate the local judge’s decision.
"This decision goes against all of that policy and in the long run will potentially hurt employees and American productivity," he said.