THE BUZZ: Tensions Brew After Harassment Allegations

By on March 14, 2018

Incidents at Wyoming-based Melvin Brewing have spurred public outcry and company policy changes

A screenshot of Melvin Brewing’s website. The company removed the message last week

JACKSON HOLE, WY – When you shake a beer, it’s likely to explode and the suds are flying at Melvin Brewing where an employee was accused of sexual harassment near its Bellingham, Washington, location. Sexual language on its website has also sparked public outrage.

Planet Jackson Hole obtained an internal memo issued by Melvin to employees dated January 11 that appears to describe the Bellingham incident. According to the memo, a Melvin brewer from Wyoming visiting Menace Brewing, a brewpub a mere block from Melvin’s Bellingham location, inappropriately touched a female Menace employee on November 20, 2017.

“The employee of Menace Brewing stated that while addressing guests at [the Melvin employee’s] table, [he] put his hand around her waist, then moved his hand lower and touched her butt and upper thigh area,” the memo read.

To amplify things, for more than a year, the “contact” button on Melvin Brewing’s website said “Touch Us.” Until last week the contact page read: “Show us on the doll where Melvin touched you.” Children who have been sexually abused are shown dolls and asked to do this when they have trouble articulating a traumatic experience.

On Friday, after hundreds of negative comments flooded its Bellingham Facebook page, the Alpine-based brewery with Jackson roots via its Thai Me Up brewpub, cleaned up its website. It issued multiple public apologies, fired the website subcontractor who the brewery claims is responsible and released a seven-step harassment policy overhaul.

Eric Henderson, owner of Meteorite Public Relations, spoke on behalf of Melvin and co-owner Jeremy Tofte. He said the wording on the website had been there for a year and up until last week had never received a complaint. That doesn’t diminish the severity of the oversight though, Henderson said. “[Tofte] feels sickened by not seeing that earlier,” he said.   

While most companies look over and approve work completed by a subcontractor, Henderson said Tofte had not read over all of the website’s content and “feels awful” about the messaging.

“We’re all moving so fast and there’s so much more that we do,” he said.

While the website wording was problematic, it also deepened tensions in Bellingham, which has shown little tolerance for this behavior.

Melvin’s public apologies label the accused person “a Melvin employee.” Henderson, though, said he was a contractor. The memo clearly states otherwise. Henderson said he could not comment on the employee’s equity in the company, but said he “is an integral part of the family and instrumental in the recipes and creation of the beers.” He also said the alleged sexual harassment came as “a surprise to everyone.”

Social media commenters weren’t having it. Commenters faulted Melvin for taking five months to come forward. But Henderson said no charges were filed and the victim and her employer asked Melvin to not bring the issue into the public sphere. “Ultimately it was respecting their wishes,” Henderson said.

According to the January 11 memo, Melvin Brewing management wasn’t notified of the incident until late December. However, employees from Melvin’s Bellingham brewpub launched an investigation soon after the incident.

“Melvin Brewing takes any accusation of misconduct seriously and investigated accordingly,” the memo reads. “Melvin representatives from Bellingham reached out to Menace Brewing in the days and weeks following the incident, both to get additional details regarding the employee’s report and to take appropriate corrective action.”

Henderson said as soon as a complaint was filed, the company tackled the issue internally; there was no legal action and the employee was enrolled in a “rehab facility for 30 days for personal conduct” and banned from all public events.

“This is not the culture or environment Melvin Brewing is building,” the memo reads. “Based on our investigation of the events, immediate corrective actions are being taken, as well as discussion of proactive actions to ensure similar incidents won’t happen in the future.”

Henderson did not comment on whether Melvin executives discussed the dismissal of the employee, instead he reiterated it was the employee’s first offense and the company’s first complaint in a decade of business.

In 2017, 13 cases of workplace sexual harassment were reported in the state of Wyoming to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, EEOC. The number comprised 43.3 percent of total state charges. But overall, the number of reports is down from previous years. In 2012, the total number of charges peaked at 95, with 36 of them reflecting sexual harassment. The number of sexual harassment charges in Wyoming makes up .1 percent of total U.S. sex charges.

Washingtonians Cry Out

A Facebook post with a screenshot of Melvin’s contact page was shared by Cat Carnell early morning March 6. By the end of the day the post had been shared more than 70 times and comments and reviews lit up the Melvin Brewing Bellingham Facebook page. Melvin released its first statement and apology by 6 p.m. the same day.

“Over [a] year ago, we made a poor decision on our website in regard to contacting Melvin Brewing,” it read. “The Touch Us header was meant to be a silly joke but in hindsight it was inappropriate, and we want to extend a heartfelt apology. Please know that we may be irreverent and like to have a good time but in this case, we crossed the line.”

The second apology was released on Facebook on Friday morning, which references the November incident.

“To clear the air, in November one of our Wyoming based employees went to one of our neighboring establishments and acted inappropriately,” the post said. “This has been dealt with internally with our employees and an official apology was issued to the individual involved.”

Both posts racked up hundreds of comments, overwhelmingly negative. People started to leave negative reviews on the Bellingham brewpub’s Facebook page and the Melvin Brewing page. Commenters called for a boycott of the brewery, some Bellingham local business owners vowed not to carry Melvin beers anymore and others want the brewery to leave town. Some Bellingham-based Melvin employees reported on social media that they were getting hate messages.

Owen Ashley, a Bellingham resident and Jackson native, said he had heard about the Melvin accusations over the past few months. Ashley said it’s hard to pick apart what’s real and what’s not when it comes to the November accusation. But when the Facebook post of Melvin’s website with distasteful messaging surfaced last week it was the last straw. “I don’t think I’ll be going back to Melvin,” he said.

Ashley said the company’s response to the viral post and social media storm seemed disingenuous. “It’s kind of an unwillingness to take responsibility,” he said. “No one is invincible and you have to be aware of that. You’re going to have to be responsible for yourself at some point.”

There are mixed feelings in the Bellingham community, Ashley said, and he’s not sure what the proper recourse should be. There’s part of him that thinks the accused employee should lose their job, though he admits it’s harsh.

But “that would seem appropriate,” he said. “That would seem like there’s a proactive culture, and at this point it seems like heavy damage control.”

Changing Policies

A task force created by the EEOC investigated harassment in the workplace and found that leadership and accountability are critical to a healthy work environment.

“Workplace culture has the greatest impact on allowing harassment to flourish, or conversely, in preventing harassment,” the study reads. “The importance of leadership cannot be overstated— effective harassment prevention efforts, and workplace culture in which harassment is not tolerated, must start with and involve the highest level of management of the company.”

Change starts from the top, and in the generally male-dominated beer industry, the biggest players are leading by example. To win at the top beer competitions breweries can no longer have sexual in nature names or demeaning language—think Midnight Sun’s Panty Peeler.

In 2017, the Brewers Association, which hosts the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup, created a diversity committee and updated its advertising and marketing code to better “represent the values, ideals, and integrity of a diverse culture.” The updated code applies to winners of the association’s competitions and focuses on beer and brand names that are inappropriate.

“Language has been added to address beer marketing with sexually explicit, lewd, or demeaning brand names, language, text, graphics, photos, video, or other images,” Brewers Association craft beer program director Julia Herz wrote in 2017.

The change in policy stemmed from conversations between beer industry members, media outlets and beer drinkers over the previous few years. “The [Brewers Association] is taking meaningful, purposeful action on a topic that has permeated many industries in our culture, including beer,” Herz wrote.

Melvin, which won small brewpub and brewer of the year at the 2018 Great American Beer Festival, is committed to following through with policy change, Henderson said.

An employee handbook with a harassment clause was already in place when the November harassment occurred, but since the incident Melvin has mandated training and counseling to its roughly 100 employees. A more comprehensive sexual and other harassment policy was rolled out immediately and an outside training company was contacted to provide prevention training over the coming months.

The company vowed to “continue to support and donate resources to Our Treehouse Organization,” Henderson said. Our Treehouse is a Bellingham nonprofit aimed at helping families grieve and heal from trauma.

The company has also updated its policies for when an employee is outside of work with a “code of conduct” that each employee and contractor must sign. The internal memo says the new policy was set to be released to employees by the end of January.   

Henderson said that ultimately employees have to be aware that what they do outside of work still reflects the company. “If you’re a face of the brand and a known entity you represent the company at large,” he said. “If you work for them it still falls back on the company itself.”

He also pointed to Melvin’s explosive growth in recent years. The “company itself is experiencing some growing pains,” he said. “With those growing pains it allows us to reflect on what we need to abide by and how we need to grow appropriately.”

#MeToo and Melvin

The Melvin allegations have surfaced amid a massive sexual harassment reckoning known as the #MeToo movement. It has encouraged women to speak out and show how prevalent sexual harassment is. A study published by Stop Street Harassment in February reported that out of 1,000 female respondents, 51 percent had experienced unwelcome sexual touching. 

The #MeToo movement began shortly after Harvey Weinstein, former film producer and co-founder of Miramax, was accused of sexual misconduct by more than 80 women. The movement emboldened thousands of women to tell their stories through social media.

One after another, men in power were forced to step down after women spoke up. Journalists and entertainers Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose were fired from long-standing programs. Senator Al Franken stepped down from Congress after being accused of forcibly kissing and groping a woman in 2006. Louis C.K.’s specials and programs were pulled and he was dropped by his publicist and network.

As for Melvin, when it first opened its Bellingham location in June 2017, Ashley said he was excited to share a little bit of his hometown with Bellingham. But now he feels like Melvin “screams the Jackson privilege” he moved away from.     

“The only things people know Wyoming for are Matthew Shepard and Melvin,” Ashley said. “We don’t have an awesome track record at the moment.”

About Erika Dahlby

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