Sexual Harassment Is Pervasive in the Restaurant Industry. Here’s What Needs to Change

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Scores of recent stories have exposed the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in industries such as Hollywood, tech, politics, and academia. Less attention has been given to lower-paying jobs, such as those in the service and hospitality industry, where the problem runs rampant.

More sexual harassment claims in the U.S. are filed in the restaurant industry than in any other, where as many as 90% of women and 70% of men reportedly experience some form of sexual harassment. While the industry has had its share of high-profile stories (with a number of well-known chefs and TV personalities being accused of inappropriate behavior), even more insidious is the routine harassment of service workers by managers, coworkers, and, importantly, customers.

There are several factors that make restaurant employees particularly susceptible to sexual harassment. First, men make up the majority of management and higher-paying roles in the U.S. restaurant industry. The typical frontline restaurant employee is young, female, and working for a male manager: 71% of restaurant servers nationwide are women, making an average of $15,814 a year. Women, particularly minority women, are often placed in jobs with lower status and are more likely to be hired for lower-paying segments like quick-serve and family-style than for higher-paying segments like fine dining. This difference in power can create an environment where sexual harassment is tolerated, ignored, or normalized, because employees do not feel comfortable confronting others about their inappropriate behavior. The industry’s high turnover rate — 70% annually — can also contribute to this culture, as targets of harassment are likely to leave before making any complaints.

Second, restaurant culture still praises the customer as “always right.” Qualitative studies show that service employees face harassment and mistreatment from customers on a daily basis, but often refrain from complaining or reporting these incidents. When they do, management tends to ignore them or change servers instead of confronting the customer. Managers can also be more forgiving of sexual harassment from customers. In an experimental study we conducted with 162 managers from various hotel and lodging departments, we found that managers perceived the same sexually harassing behavior as less negative when it was done by a customer than by an employee.

In addition, because restaurant employees in the U.S. often rely on tips, customers play an integral role in the both the evaluation and pay of restaurant employees — which can both lead customers to sexually harass employees and make employees and managers less likely to speak out against it. For example, one report found that sexual harassment is more common in states that rely on the tip system than in states that have a minimum wage.

Third, the restaurant industry is a “looks” industry, in which women are expected to use their appearance as part of the service experience. Restaurants often have strict grooming and uniform rules, requiring employees to maintain certain “looks.” But a culture that emphasizes and rewards looks can help customers and managers justify sexual harassment toward employees. And our other research shows that women who are perceived to have used their looks to get ahead are seen as more “deserving” of sexual harassment.

What Women Experience

We wanted to hear from women about their experiences, so we conducted a study following 76 female college students working in food and beverage service jobs, mainly restaurants, over a period of three months in 2017. On the first day of every month, the women read a list of 16 sexual harassing behaviors and reported which ones they’d experienced at work. 20 of them reported at least one sexual harassment incident during one of the months; 23 reported an incident during two of the months; and 33 reported an incident during each of the three months. Over the three months, the women reported 226 incidents of sexual harassment; 112 of the incidents involved coworkers, 29 involved a manager, and 85 involved customers.

Of the 16 behaviors listed — all of which are from the legal and psychological definitions of sexual harassment, which do not include violent behavior like rape or assault — the most frequent behaviors selected were when someone at work “told suggestive, sexual stories” (49%), “made offensive remarks” (46%), “made crude sexual remarks” (45%), “made sexist comments” (42%), and “attempted to discuss sex” (33%).

We also found that 2.4% reported being “afraid of poor treatment” for not cooperating, 2.4% reported experiencing “consequences for refusing advances,” and 7.1% reported it was “necessary to cooperate to be well treated” (7.1%).

The frequency of sexual harassment was routine and consistent over time. During the first month, 75% reported an incident, 70% reported one during the second month, and 74% reported one during the third. Follow-up qualitative interviews with 10 participants revealed that harassment was often ignored or taken to be “part of the job,” by both targets of the harassment and the coworkers who witnessed it. Specific examples we heard included a customer telling a server “The food is as good as you” and another saying “Are you on the desert menu? Because you look yummy.”

Despite feeling uncomfortable and threatened, servers saw it as part of the job and rarely complained to their managers. Many mentioned failing to complain or report the harassment because of fear of retaliation. In fact, the more sexual harassment they experienced, the more they reported fear of retaliation.

We also saw that both men and women normalized sexual harassment. For example, Mary, one of the respondents we interviewed, explained that one of her female coworkers often directed sexualized comments to everyone, including their manager, who ignored it instead of reprimanding her.

What Restaurants Can Do to Reduce Sexual Harassment

Failing to protect employees from customer sexual harassment can have negative legal implications for restaurants. For example, in Lockard v. Pizza Hut, the employer (a Pizza Hut franchisee) was found liable for sexual harassment when its manager ignored an employee’s complaints of a customer who sexually harassed her on two occasions. The franchisee ignored Pizza Hut’s corporate policy that managers should first inform the customer to stop sexually harassing their employees and then ask the customer to leave if they persist after the first warning. By ignoring this policy, the franchisee was ordered to pay the employee around $38,000.

There is no question that employers have a legal obligation to protect their employees from customer sexual harassment, but monetary losses from lawsuits are not the only consequences of ignoring sexual harassment. A high-profile sexual harassment claim can have a negative impact on an organization’s reputation (for instance, people called for a boycott of Mario Batali’s restaurants after multiple women made allegations of sexual harassment). And ignoring sexual harassment can damage employee morale: Research shows it increases employee stress, anxiety, burnout, and turnover intentions.

So how can restaurants eliminate the notion that harassment is simply “part of the job”?

First, because employees are more likely to engage in sexual harassment when they perceive that their organization accepts, ignores, or doesn’t care about it, restaurants need to make clear to all employees and managers that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. Developing and enforcing anti-sexual harassment policies is a start. But organizations also must establish procedures for employees to follow if they need to file complaints and for managers to follow to address complaints fairly and consistently.

Managers are often responsible for handling sexual harassment complaints, but if they are the perpetrators of sexual harassment, then employees should have a separate mechanism for reporting sexual harassment. For example, personnel websites should include online forms for employees to report sexual harassment to the appropriate human resource department. Restaurants often conduct internal audits of service quality by sending “secret shoppers” in. They should use this model by sending human resource specialists to make site visits and interview employees about any sexual harassment or other inappropriate behaviors.

Second, managers should be required to complete training on sexual harassment. If organizations have the best anti-sexual harassment policies, but managers do not implement them, nothing will change. Managers should be trained to recognize different forms of sexual harassment, understand the legal requirements of maintaining a workplace free from sexual harassment, and learn the proper steps in addressing complaints.

In addition, all employees should take bystander intervention training so that witnesses of harassment know how to identify it and how to help women who experience it. For example, employees are often trained to disrupt harassment by making themselves known to the harasser and asking the target for help with something. By removing the target from the situation, bystanders can stop the harassment, demonstrate their awareness of the issue, and talk to the harasser later about their behavior.

Third, the restaurant industry needs to firmly address customer-based sexual harassment. Restaurant policy should charge managers with protecting their employees from unwanted behavior from customers, and it should mandate training them on how to deal with harassing customers. For example, if a server complains that they are made uncomfortable by a harassing customer, managers could move that employee off that table and be prepared to inform the customer that servers should be respected. If customers do not comply, managers can ask customers to leave and ensure that the server has not lost their tips by assigning them to other tables.

Restaurants can also be more proactive and explicit in communicating that sexual harassment of staff will not be tolerated. Restaurants already have policies for refusing service to unruly customers, such as intoxicated patrons who threaten other customers or employees. They can signal to customers that this includes sexual harassment. They can also post a statement prohibiting sexual harassment of staff on menus, front doors, tables, and other places where they have signs about their right to refuse service.

In light of the #MeToo movement, organizations are under increasing pressure to address and root out behavior that harms their employees. Businesses’ reputations and bottom lines are at stake, as employees can bring unwanted attention and legal action against companies that do not protect them from harassment. It is clear that service workers are particularly susceptible to sexual harassment, and it’s time the restaurant industry steps up to counteract this.

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