What a 'Best Butt' Award Says About Bad Corporate Culture

Reader Resource

Position yourself for growth in 2017—join us live at the Entrepreneur 360 Conference in Long Beach, Calif. on Nov. 16. Secure Your Seat »

It seems like, on the first day of your new job, every employee handbook circulated covers the general rule that telling someone they have a nice butt isn't a good idea professionally.

That's why a recent controversy at an Indiana restaurant chain is such a head-scratcher. At least one manager at Scotty's Brewhouse in Indianapolis was fired as a result of a team-building event gone wrong. Several employees received trophies akin to "best bartender" or "best server," presumably as some kind of reward for good service.

But one employee got a trophy that was entirely unwelcome: "Best butt." Not only that, but, after receiving the trophy, she was then told to turn around in front of everyone so people could take pictures of the asset that won her the award.

The server, whom the local media didn't identify, was, unsurprisingly, not amused. In fact, she felt humilated.

“I feel like I’m more than just a butt," the woman told a local television station. "I feel like I’m smart. I’m going to school.”

In fact, she deserved a trophy for nothing short of work ethic, it seems. “I have two jobs so I can make money and continue to go to school," she said, "and then get my degree and not work two jobs anymore.”

The corporate bosses at Scotty's meted out an ass-whooping for the offense. In a statement, company owner Scott Wise said he was "completely unaware" of the awards, nor did he or anyone else in senior management "condone or sponsor this event."

Related: How Does the EEOC Fare in the Discrimination Wars?

"As a result," Wise said, "we took immediate action that included terminating management, and I have instructed our teams to immediately do additional sexual harassment training companywide, beyond the initial training process new managers go through already when they are hired."

From a communications standpoint, that touches on the Holy Trinity of messaging that companies like Scotty's want to make in a crisis: It was an isolated incident, we handled it swiftly and we're working to make sure it never happens again.

But there's also something hollow about the response. Sexual-harassment policies, like all corporate efforts to root out bad behavior and discrimination, can be filled with grey areas. All hiring, for instance, involves some kind of discrimination. Many a manager has spent a good amount of time wondering whether a colleague's compliment over a dress runs afoul of unwelcome-communications policies and needs a disciplinary response.

This doesn't seem to be a grey area. Talking about someone's "nice butt" to them is an event worthy of termination at most places, for obvious reasons: It objectifies someone in a sexually aggressive away, which runs a high risk of being unwelcome by the receiver. That's first-day training material: No touching, no whistling, etc.

Having a trophy engraved seems to take this to a whole other level of asininery.

Related: 5 Ways to Manage 'Mad Men'-Era Sexual Harassment

And that's where an isolated firing and retraining might not do the trick Scotty's management needs. Many employees test company policies, but only enterprises with permissive cultures allow some to blow past boundaries in the way that happened with the "nice butt" trophy. It's probably not surprising that this happened in a bar environment, which is more laid back than a cubicle-farm office. A neon Bud sign is a modern sub rosa, a signal that much of what happens in the confine of the bar is meant to stay there, or at least to never be mentioned (or remembered) again. Many employees at bars and restaurants know and accept this. The banter that goes on in kitchens or behind bar with staff would make a Teamster blush and cause blood-pressure spikes in the average HR representative.

But that's no license to humiliate or take away human dignity from someone, and that's what happened at Scotty's. Beyond simply a rogue employee or two, Scotty's corporate culture bears some responsibility and needs an assessment. After all, it was Scotty's overall culture that, presumably, allowed people to be hired and promoted to the point where a nice-butt trophy didn't command a second thought. At the very least, it's a cultural indictment that a single management team at one restaurant could have an event like this without anyone in the corporate suites knowing about it or approving of it beforehand. Yes, all companies have bad employees and subpar managers, but bad culture often allows these people to go unchecked. That's the blame of leadership, not the bad actors in question.

Related: Tinder Suspends Co-Founder Over Sexual Harassment Claims

Here's the good news. Scotty's seems like a great business. It's been around 20 years, has about a dozen restaurants and looks to be welcoming and inventive with its food. (I'm particularly intrigued by something called a Chupacabra burger.) This isn't some roadside trucker tavern that can't get out of its own way. It seems to have bright marketing minds, committed leadership and it knows a crisis when it sees one. A cultural audit is at least easy to begin, even if the findings are troubling.

And there's better news: Scotty's can use this to try to hire more people who work their tails off, support themselves, pay for their education and contribute to a positive workplace culture.

That would be a very nice end.