HAVING WORDS WITH Jeff B. Powell PRESIDENT, RAZZOO’S LP

HAVING WORDS WITH Jeff B. Powell PRESIDENT, RAZZOO’S LP

The 11-unit Razzoo’s Cajun Cafe casual-dining chain, based in Addison, Texas, earlier this summer settled a religious-discrimination lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of a former employee who declined to sing birthday greetings to guests. The suit arose after Sabrina Balentine, a Jehovah’s Witness and employee at a unit in Mesquite, Texas, refused in 2006 to participate during group table-side songs because her faith doesn’t recognize birthdays. Razzoo’s, which is privately held, settled for $38,750 and agreed to a two-year consent decree that includes the adoption of an anti-discrimination policy for religious accommodation. Razzoo’s has nine units in the Dallas-Fort Worth area as well as one each in Houston and Charlotte, N.C.

How did this lawsuit make you feel?

It’s hard to be described in terms of being insensitive toward an employee or not appreciating their rights. We are not that kind of company. We work so hard to make sure we take care of each other. We’re not a large chain.

What made you decide to settle?

The legal system costs money to get into, and it costs a lot of money to get out of it. It was a tough business decision to settle.

How important are birthday songs to the guests?

It is something that our guests really enjoy. We celebrate birthdays in a fun and appropriate way. We are a destination for special events. It’s part of what we do.

Have you changed anything for the guest?

No. It would take something away from our atmosphere.

How can you best prepare yourself for a case like this?

Invest in your culture. Make sure that your employees are positive toward the company. You have to achieve that not by mandate, but by treating them well. Our employees support our business.

What advice do you have for other companies?

FAST FACTS

AGE: 43EDUCATION: bachelor’s degree in business administration from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TexasEXPERIENCE: Grand Metropolitan [3] PLC, former parent of Pillsbury; restaurant manager for Bennigan’s [4] and Houston’s [5]PERSONAL: married, three children

When issues arise, treat them carefully. Take time to step away and fully understand the circumstances. That’s very, very important. I encourage people to have in-house or outsource a competent, objective humanresources outlet because of the complexities of employment law. The most important thing to do—and I would say this to anybody and any issue in employment law, because it’s so complicated—is to understand the rights of employees and the employers’ obligations. You must step back, at least to clear your head. Make sure restaurant managers are up to speed.

How long had this employee been with you?

The worker was with us for two weeks.

Do you think the company was given a chance to accommodate?

Our point was that she quit. Their point was that she was fired. She may have thought that. When people leave a shift and don’t come back, they are gone. I do not feel like we were given the opportunity to fully evaluate it and accommodate.

What would the cost have been if you had continued litigation?

It would have far exceeded that settlement. This is a business decision. This is not a court verdict. We made it clear before mediation that we wanted to get this resolved. Dollars that need to be spent on our existing employees and operations [would] be going to a legal process that unfortunately gets very expensive very quickly, particularly when you get to litigation. It had already reached $50,000.