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Inappropriate Touches And Staff: Where Is The Line?

Two pilots sued the CEO of National Beverage Corp., which manufactures LaCroix sparkling water, for inappropriate touching.

The two pilots worked for Broad River Aviation, Inc., which operates the jet used for National Beverage's executive travel. The plaintiffs were co-pilots for the CEO, who is also a pilot and flies the company jet. The two former employees allege that the CEO touched them in an inappropriate and unwanted manner on multiple occasions inside the cockpit.

A 2016 lawsuit, settled in 2018, accused the CEO of more than 30 instances of "repeated unjustified, unwarranted and uninvited grabbing, rubbing and groping." That lawsuit was withdrawn as part of the settlement agreement, but the second pilot's lawsuit is proceeding.

The CEO, an 82-year-old billionaire, has been the CEO of National Beverage since 1985. His attorney claims that "any contact would be the equivalent of an innocuous pat on the back or handshake after a completed flight." Brittany Shoot "CEO Behind LaCroix Brand Accused of Inappropriately Touching Airplane Pilots" (Jul. 03, 2018).

Commentary and Checklist

The issue of inappropriate and unwanted touching can be tricky, because what one person thinks would be appropriate and welcome might not be to another person.

Obviously, grabbing private body parts is always inappropriate. However, a “pat on the back” is open to interpretation, depending on if the hand lingers; where the hand was placed on the person’s back; and if the person is comfortable with any type of touching at all. We all have different physical and social boundaries.  

Similarly, although family employers can shake a staff member’s hand in a professional manner, make sure that the handshake is, indeed, only professional. Holding the person’s hand for a longer than normal period or kissing a person’s hand could be construed as less than professional.

A best practice is for family employers to avoid all form of touch with staff members, other than a professional handshake. If you inadvertently touch a staff person on the shoulder and he or she seems uncomfortable, immediately apologize and avoid all physical contact in the future.

If a staff member does make an allegation of inappropriate touching against you, you and your legal counsel should arrange for an investigation, even if you think the touching was appropriate. Immediately bringing in an impartial third party to investigate is the best way to keep allegations from making their way into court. The same holds true for allegations made against managers, supervisors, or other staff.

Follow these tips concerning wrongdoing investigations:

  • Create a policy on investigations that states when an investigation is needed as well as who should conduct the investigation.
  • Clearly define the investigator's role. Consider using a third party to manage staff complaint investigations, especially for high-risk matters.
  • Select a trained investigator. Make sure the investigator has the ability to be objective, calm, courteous, and professional.
  • Be sure to respond promptly to all complaints of harassment or discrimination.
  • Conduct a thorough investigation of the complaint to avoid critical information or facts coming to light after the investigation is completed.
  • Manage the investigation with discretion, but do not promise complete confidentiality to the parties involved because certain disclosures may need to be made to complete the investigation.
  • Document all interviews and subsequent actions. Notes from all interviews should be recorded at the time or shortly after the interview and reviewed with the interviewee for accuracy.
  • Communicate the final resolution to all those involved.
  • If you believe that an investigation was done poorly, appoint someone to review the investigation and, if necessary, perform a second investigation.
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