A former kitchen worker says he was fired from a popular Winnipeg restaurant chain after he made a complaint about being sexually harassed at work.
Steven Bechard worked at Stella’s in the chain’s commissary for about two years. He tells Global News his supervisor sexually harassed him one day in August.
“I had my boss come up to me, behind me, and grab my hips and and start to pretend to have sex with me,” said Bechard.
“My mind just went blurry. I turn around and he’s like, ‘You don’t have to be mad.'”
Bechard said it wasn’t the first time he had noticed inappropriate behaviour from his boss, which included sexual comments and “pinching other staff member’s asses.”
Seeing his boss’ behaviour combined with the incident prompted Bechard to make a complaint with the chain’s catering director, who promised to bring up the incident with Stella’s CEO Grant Anderson, said Bechard.
The director did, said Bechard, then asked him what he wanted done about it.
“I kind of got the impression, like, they think that I was making up this whole story,” said Bechard, adding he didn’t want anyone to lose their job, but did want the chain to uphold their sexual harassment policies.
After the conversation Bechard said he was off for four days, then came back to work, only to be confronted by his boss and the regional kitchen general manager and told he was fired.
“I said to him, like, you’re going to fire one of your best employees for something I never did wrong?”
Bechard had never been written up or given any verbal warnings before he was fired, he said.
Bechard made a complaint with Winnipeg police, but he said police told him there wasn’t enough evidence to press charges. Winnipeg police confirmed the complaint, saying “no arrests have been made at this time.”
He also made a complaint with the Manitoba Labour Board on Sept. 14, a copy of which was sent to Anderson.
The board complaint was dropped after employment standards advised him to do so, said Bechard.
Bechard loved his job and had hopes of getting it back, he said, getting emotional.
“I get that feeling, like it’s all my fault and I’m letting my family down … this needs to stop. This is not okay.”
His complaint doesn’t appear to be the only one.
More than 150 anonymous complaints popped up Thursday on a public Instagram account called @notmystellas.
In the complaints, apparent former and current employees claim sexual harassment, general harassment, casual racism, verbal abuse, employees being fired without cause and unsafe working conditions.
Several staff members reached out directly to Global News Friday.
A former staff member at the chain’s Provencher Boulevard location, who wished to remain anonymous said what he had read on the Instagram account was “absolutely true … I’d say it was Stella’s open dirty little secret.”
“When working, everyone was just scared to ask for breaks,” he said, noting he was yelled at in front of the staff for asking for a break.
He quit after four or five months, he said, due to way staff were treated.
“It was just hostile, the environment there was just so tense. It was unbearable.”
Another alleged that breaks were not allowed and said he witnessed sexual harassment of female serving staff first-hand.
“Numerous times you got two managers … whistling at them, making smarmy remarks at them.
“You could just tell, every time they had to walk through the kitchen, to get utensils you know, that they felt uncomfortable.”
He said when those woman would make a complaint, a sign would be posted on the door reminding people of their sexual harassment policies, but he never heard of any follow-through by management.
A third, who asked that Global News only use her first name of Jess, said the regional manager would throw out their water bottles from the staff room and they were expected to work eight-hour shifts with no breaks.
“We were basically told we were stupid and replaceable,” if they complained, said Jess.
While she never saw outright sexual harassment, she said the dress code was dependent on what a person looked like – larger women were discouraged from wearing tighter-fitting clothes.
“I remember conversations about people standing up for themselves, and then, like, backtalk about them, like basically eye-rolling, like there’s nothing that I can do.
“While working at Stella’s I watched the company completely disregard an instance of sexual assault and harassment,” wrote another former employee, Kelsey Wade, in a public Facebook post.
“The CEO was very inappropriate with many staff members. Every time he came in he would grab my cheeks and call me cute, making me horribly uncomfortable.”
Local PR strategist Susie Parker says she wasn’t surprised that people are sharing their stories.
Anderson told Global News they are taking immediate action, including consulting an HR firm and establishing a whistleblower line.
Anderson wouldn’t comment on any allegations of sexual harassment, saying they should be handled in a private manner.
“What we’re really kind of hoping for out of this situation, is that we open up the channels for dialogue, which is what we’re trying to do at this juncture.”
When asked about Bechard’s specific situation, Anderson said he was aware of it but said it would not be his place to comment.
Asked if Anderson had ever sexually harassed one of his workers, he said “Not that I’m aware of, no.”
“Right now we do have an anti-harassment and anti-violence policy in place and that all employees are required to sign off on, and you know, part of that protocol requires that any of these matters are dealt with in a private and professional manner.”
Stella’s management sent a statement to media shortly after this story was first published. Read the entire statement below:
“Recently, Stella’s has become aware of activity by a few individuals on social media that is critical of us. At Stella’s, we believe in freedom of expression and we accept that, as a family business with over 500 employees in Manitoba, we must be held to a high standard of conduct. We accept that constructive feedback must be used as a way to continuously improve. We also believe that feedback should be fair and factual, and must respect the privacy and dignity of all members of the Stella’s family, whether that be our amazing staff, customers, suppliers or friends.
“We do not believe that it would be constructive to try to publicly address matters raised in social media. We believe that all concerned individuals deserve to be treated with utmost respect and dignity, and their privacy must be respected. For those who are critical of us, we regret that we have let you down. Please let us assure you that Stella’s is committed to creating a positive environment for all members of the Stella’s family by doing our utmost to ensure that everyone – employee, customer, supplier and friend – is treated with dignity and respect.
“As an employer of over 500 amazing Manitobans, Stella’s has overall responsibility for creating and maintaining a work environment within the Stella’s family that is free from discrimination and harassment. We cannot do it alone; all of our employees have a personal responsibility for conducting themselves in a professional, businesslike and caring manner at all times.
“Harassment in any form – whether sexual, physical, psychological or otherwise – is not and will not be tolerated within the Stella’s family. We expect all of our employees to be stewards of this policy and to report any incidents of harassment as soon as possible. Our commitment at Stella’s is to investigate all reports of harassment in a fair and timely manner, while protecting the privacy of all parties as much as possible.
“Stella’s has a harassment policy and procedures in place for dealing with these complaints. We take them very seriously. Over the last 15 years, Stella’s has seen tremendous growth, and our family has gotten so much bigger. With that growth comes responsibility, and we will continue to work at making Stella’s a truly modern and egalitarian work culture. We are going to continue to listen to our staff and to everyone who have taken the time to share their important views, and we are going to continue to strive to train our managers and leaders so that they are equipped to handle complaints of harassment in a timely, professional, sensitive, fair, and caring manner.
“We have engaged People First HR Consultants, a qualified human resource consulting firm, to review all of our policies and procedures on workplace safety and harassment and to make recommendations to help us continuously improve. We will review and improve our training practices so as to ensure that our management and staff receive the very best training in how to handle complaints of harassment, including so as to ensure that there is clarity in the organization as to how to safely report and deal with complaints of harassment. As part of our review process, we will develop a communications plan for our employees that makes clear our commitment to a safe workplace, and provides updates on this important initiative. We will also be introducing a “whistle blower line” that all employees will have access to.
“No matter your gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, you are welcome at Stella’s. We want you to be safe and to feel safe, at Stella’s. We will always listen to feedback, whether positive or negative, and we will always strive to be a company that we – and we hope you – can take pride in.
“Tore Sohlberg & Lehla Abreder
– With files from Abigail Turner