It’s Time to Stamp Out Sexual Harassment in Restaurants

It’s an uncomfortable truth that more sexual harassment claims are filed in the restaurant industry than any other. Overall, the figures make for disturbing reading. Reports suggest that up to 90 percent of women and 70 percent of men experience some form of sexual harassment from managers, coworkers, vendors and customers in restaurants. McDonalds made the headlines recently as employees in 10 cities went on strike to draw attention to the issue.
So what makes the issue so pervasive in the restaurant world and what should you do to protect your employees?

First, let’s consider the factors that may be fueling this culture. 

Power Imbalance 

It’s true that men make up the majority of power holding positions in the restaurant industry. It’s also true that 52 percent of restaurant employees are women, two-thirds of which are tipped workers in lower paying quick-serve or family-style eateries. Certainly, the research supports the idea that women experience more sexual harassment in the workplace and these power imbalances may play a significant role. 

However, emerging evidence suggests that harassment against men in the workplace is very real and on the rise. That said, it’s thought that sexual harassment against men isn’t as widely studied as that against women so figures may be much higher than currently believed. In addition, men may be less likely to report incidents out of embarrassment and a belief that it’s ‘unmanly’ to report such behavior.  

High Turnover

The restaurant industry’s huge turnover rate of 70 percent a year increases the chances of those employees who have experienced sexual harassment leaving before they’ve filed a complaint. Of course, there’s a high chance that the turnover also reflects employees seeking out new work after unwanted sexual attention.

One shocking statistic shows that once a complaint is filed, a victim can wait an average of 295 days for a response. This means that half of all accusations end up being dismissed, or employees move on before a conclusion is reached.  

Customer ‘Sovereignty’

Research shows that service workers are subjected to abuse from customers on a daily basis. The glorification of the customer as ‘always right’ and the role of tipping in the evaluation and pay of servers means that restaurant employees feel they lack the power to report unwanted sexual advances. And managers are more likely to ignore them if they do. 

Sexualized Environment

It’s common to hear about female bartenders or servers being encouraged to wear ‘sexy’ or revealing clothes or be subject to rigorous grooming and uniform rules. 

Nurturing a sexual atmosphere keeps employees in a state of insecurity and makes it tricky for them to advance their careers, quite aside from any discomfort they may feel at work. However, the sad reality is that many servers accept it as an unappealing part of the job and rarely complain to their managers. 

Changes to Sexual Harassment Legislation

In response to the #MeToo movement and a 12-percent rise in sexual harassment allegations to the U.S. Equal Employment Commission (EEOC) in 2018, companies nationwide are coming under pressure to crack down on the issue. A slew of states have passed new laws, or have legislation in the works, intended to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. 

Each state has very clear sexual harassment requirements, but the specifics will differ slightly state by state. Of course, you or your HR advisor should review your state’s sexual harassment laws to determine whether you need to revise your existing policies, training, disclosure obligations, investigation protocols, and arbitration clauses. 

Let’s take a broad view of what’s happened across the country. 

  • New York and California are among those states with the most hardline sexual harassment laws. For example, since October 9, 2018, companies in New York, regardless of size, must adopt a sexual harassment prevention policy and implement a training program that meets minimum standards. Meanwhile, California bolstered its existing training requirements. 
  • Delaware’s new sexual harassment law imposes training requirements on employers with at least 50 employees in the state. 
  • A handful of states, including Maryland and Louisiana, reinforced existing or added sexual harassment training requirements for government employees.
  • Maine requires sexual harassment training for companies with more than 15 supervisors, while Connecticut is one of many states that insists on training for companies with 50 or more employees. 

The Business Cost of Sweeping Sexual Harassment Under the Rug

Now that employees have greater power to hold you accountable for doing everything possible to protect them from harassment, if you fail to address or take seriously the issue of sexual harassment, not only is your reputation and profits margins at risk, you may find yourself facing legal action. 

How, as a restaurant owner or manager, do you ensure you’re fully compliant with the latest regulations? How can you and your HR team put together a comprehensive handbook policy that will help you deal with harassment claims quickly, efficiently and fairly? 

Steps to Tackle Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

  • Strengthen and vigorously enforce your anti-harassment policy. Address the issue daily in order to make these policies effective.
  • Set up clear, confidential reporting systems.
  • Train employees and managers. From day one of employment, all staff members should know the correct way to report incidents of sexual harassment and be fully aware of the consequences if they’re the perpetrator.   
  • Implement bystander training.
  • Once a complaint is filed, give the victim regular, swift feedback to ensure they feel heard. You also need to make an informal, fast-track procedure such as conciliation or mediation available to your employees. 
  • The moment investigators reach a conclusion, make sure you fully implement the recommendations immediately.  
  • You must have an implicit agreement between HR and your management team to preserve the integrity of the procedure until it reaches a natural end, i.e. the problem has been resolved and professional relationships restored.  
  • Emphasize zero tolerance for sexual harassment by managers, co-workers, vendors and customers. Also, be clear that you won’t tolerate unlawful retaliation against employees raising issues of harassment or participating in investigations harassment.
  • Review your dress code policy to ensure similar uniforms for men and women that promote an equitable work environment for all.

Step Up, Seek Advice 

The #MeToo movement has placed restaurant businesses under close scrutiny. The burden of proof is now on your to demonstrate that you’re acting effectively against sexual harassment. Fortunately, there are many steps you can take to protect your employees from harassment. If you’re unsure how your restaurant HR policy shapes up in light of the new sexual harassment legislation speak to your HR advisors.