It was a new drama every time Robin walked into the kitchen of the New York City restaurant where she waited tables. The source: a cook whose specialty was a foul broth of insults and inappropriate comments.
Eventually, she gave him a piece of her mind and hoped he’d back off. No such luck. In the restaurant industry, revenge can be a dish not served at all.
“He stopped making my orders,” she recalled. “All of the other tables were getting their food on time. The customers were annoyed and taking it out on me, by complaining or giving me bad tips. I felt trapped — it was a toxic situation.”
Ask anyone you know who has worked in a restaurant and they’re almost guaranteed to have a comparable story. Statistics show that it is one of the most stressful industries in the country in terms of dealing with sexual harassment and bullying.
The Front & Back Of the House: Depending On Each Other To Succeed Means Working Together To End Abuse
According to a report by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an incredible 90 percent of female workers claim to have been sexually harassed by customers, with half claiming it happens on a weekly basis.
As famously portrayed in books, films and TV series like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Bradley Cooper’s Burnt, the the restaurant and food services industry is incredibly fast-paced and high energy and often the front and back of house are non-stop action, leading to high levels of stress and frustration. Still, this is no longer an acceptable excuse for a toxic work environment. A Modern Restaurant Management columnist recently outlined a few acts that would be considered sexual harassment in the industry, although they could hold true in any setting:
- A supervisor demanding a sexual quid pro quo from a subordinate for a work benefit
- When people are treated as inferior due to their gender
- Management retaliating against a worker for alleging sexual harassment
The problems often stem from people who are supposed to be on the same team. Two-thirds of female workers and over half of men reported having experienced some form of sexual harassment from their managers, while nearly 80 percent of women and 70 percent of men surveyed said they were on the receiving end from their co-workers. Roughly one in five women reported being pressured by management to sexualize their behavior and/or appearance when dealing with customers.
And of course workers who rely on tips are in an especially precarious position, as they often have to tolerate the intolerable in order to make a living. Waiters and waitresses are dependent on solid performances from bartenders, cooks, bus boys, dishwashers, hostesses and others in order to deliver customers the pleasant dining experience they expect.
Chefs Have Their Toolbox, Restaurant and Food Service Orgs Need Theirs, Too
The restaurant industry is not immune to the changes taking place in the #MeToo era. As an essayist in Eater observed, “We cannot afford to pretend everything is all better because we got rid of the most heinous bad actors, like Mario Batali” — no less than a culture change is necessary.
Owners who take proactive steps to promote happy and healthy atmospheres in their workplaces will maintain their best workers and protect their bottom lines. Those who don’t risk allowing bad behaviors to fester, leading to staff turnover, unhappy customers and lawsuits that can destroy their businesses. When customers see unpleasant working conditions they often go to social media to share what they saw, so solutions that address workplace issues before they spiral out of control can have real effects to the bottom line.
In Robin’s case, even though the cook’s behavior was bad for the business, she felt like telling the manager was a lost cause – the two were friends and disciplinary action was unlikely. So she dealt with her problem the way so many others do in the industry – she quit. But if she had some way of letting the owner know, she said, it’s possible they could have straightened the situation out.
Legal experts stress that restaurant owners should mandate employees sign on to anti-bullying and harassment policies. These documents not only help employers minimize or avoid liability, but ensure everyone is clear on what’s expected of them. At least one fast food chain, Mooyah Burgers, Fries & Shakes, has taken the concept a step further, asking workers to agree to a social media harassment policy.
STOPit Solutions’ anonymous reporting app has a growing number of clients in restaurant chains, according to Chief Revenue Officer Neil Hooper. The app empowers workers who would otherwise feel too vulnerable to share their stories straight with the company’s human resources officers and others who can solve the problem.
An anonymous reporting system can be a valuable tool for retaining reliable workers in an industry that is known for its high turnover. Restaurant and bar jobs open all the time, providing employees plenty of mobility if they’re not happy with their work situations.
Hooper noted that STOPit can be especially helpful during summer and holiday seasons, when restaurants staff up with short-term workers who are not invested in their new workplace cultures.
“It’s a busy time that’s already stressful for employees,” he said. “When you add in bad behavior from one worker to another, it can create a lot of tension. We have heard from a number of employers that it’s an important time to have an anonymous HR reporting system in place.”