Harassment & Hospitality – An Owner’s Perspective
Updated: Dec 3, 2020
I’ve had a couple of run-ins with what you might call harassment – two weeks ago, a patron told me he wanted to have my, uh, manhood in his mouth, and then went into other details I’d rather not elaborate on without a few beers. But by and large, I’m rarely subjected to it even though I spend a lot of time in my own bar. Why? Well, for one, I identify as a straight, white male. For another, I’m one of the owners, and harassment often seems to occur when patrons expect servitude from their servers. Most of my familiarity with harassment comes from incidents the staff report to me, and typically those incidents only get reported when I extract them.
It hurts to think that a business I helped to open could foster an environment conducive to harassment. It hurts to think that our staff – our family – deal with harassment on a regular basis. I am dating one of our staff, and it makes me furious to hear what they occasionally have to deal with as a server. And yet, in the hospitality industry, this seems to be the norm. Workplace BC indicates hospitality is the industry with the highest proportion of bullying and harassment complaints, with most of the complaints being against management. Restaurant Opportunities Centers United confirms these findings with at least 90% of women working in tipped restaurant positions dealing with harassment in some form, and at least two-thirds of female workers and over half of male workers experiencing some form of sexual harassment from management. The latter part of both studies is troubling: the root of the problem stems from the top down.
Dani, who is a bartender here on the weekends and a psychologist during the week, elaborated on the “bartender effect” from the popular show How I Met Your Mother: people (mainly women) in service industry professions such as bartending are perceived as more attractive because they are in that profession. The reality is not far off – it is symptomatic of how highly sexualized the service industry is. This is clearly evidenced in many restaurants and bars which encourage or insist their staff look or present themselves a certain way for the benefit and pleasure of the patrons. Likewise, the ‘customer is always right’ motto being prevalent in the industry produces a feeling of having to tolerate sexual harassment and unwanted advances because it is “just part of the job.” It also reinforces a clear power imbalance between patron and server that already exists since the server cannot remove themselves from the reality of job security, tips, management, etc. This has a cyclical impact on the sexualization of the service industry.
Dani also noted that the sexualization of the service industry fosters social distancing, or an ‘othering’ of service industry professionals, meaning bartenders, servers, etc., are perceived as somehow different from everyone else. This produces a feeling of distance between the harasser and their harassee, almost as though the harassee is not a regular person you met through friends, or at work, etc. This results in frequently heard comments like “she can take it”, or “she’s used to it”, or ‘I didn’t mean anything by it’, thereby excusing culpability or responsibility with the justification that a service interaction is not the same as any other, and therefore doesn’t have to follow conventional social rules. This is how an otherwise nice person can act like a shithead towards their server.
About a year ago, I remember hearing about harassment at our workplace for the first time. Our bartender Jill, who enjoys wearing crop-tops, received frequent unwanted feedback from patrons of all genders who either accosted her for promoting patriarchy, belittled her for dressing scantily, took her choice of clothing as an opportunity to hit on her aggressively, or attempted to defend her against Good Robot’s sexist dress codes. I had a hard time believing that someone as kind and giving as Jill could be treated so poorly, especially by patrons of my business. Since then, I’ve realized two things:
Staff will rarely voluntarily tell me about incidents of harassment; rather, I have to inquire about them; and
Harassment is prevalent in my establishment, regardless of how hard we’ve tried to make our place open, welcoming and comfortable.
Here are a few incidents – some recurring – over the past couple of months that staff have dealt with:
patrons expressing their undying love for staff members (recurring);
patrons waiting around for a certain staff member’s shift to start in order to ask them on a date, and/or inquiring with other staff and patrons as to the relationship availability of said staff member (recurring);
a patron telling a staff member to “sit on their face”;
patrons grabbing our staff’s exposed skin to get their attention (recurring);
patrons groping staff (recurring);
a patron called a staff member a “bitch” after being cut off;
a patron telling a queer patron he would “fuck her straight”;
patrons adding their servers on social media platforms and sending them inappropriate messages after hours (recurring);
etc. And these are just over the last couple months.
We recently held a staff meeting to discuss how we could change this culture. Our staff chimed in with specific incidents and how they were dealt with effectively. Ultimately, each incident and its consequence were unique, so it’s difficult to address a complex problem with a simple solution. We thought it might help to share some incidents and how they were dealt with effectively for all those in the industry who deal with this bullshit on the regular:
Inform the manager immediately. It’s good to have two sets of eyes on anyone disrupting the workplace.
Take note of the incident in the communications book or equivalent, including a descriptor of the harasser.
Sass back. Sometimes, an effective way to put a patron in their place is to be sassier or more clever than them.
Example: After a server was touched on the leg by a patron trying to get their attention, the server replied, “Order with your mouth, not with your hands.”
Be direct. Be firm. Tell the harasser you don’t appreciate the way they interacted with you and explain why.
Example: “I enjoyed serving you up until you said those things to me. I am a server, not a servant, and the way you treated me was grossly inappropriate.”
Talk to them in private. This has been effectively used with the above tactic in many instances at our establishment.
Talk to the most reasonable person in their party, if there is one. Mention you don’t want to embarrass their friend in front of everyone but that their friend is being inappropriate. Sometimes, hearing from a friend that you are acting inappropriately is more significant than hearing it from a stranger.
If the above items have not worked, it’s time to cut people off and/or kick people out. Be direct. Be firm. Point to the door. Repeat.
Going back to a stat from earlier in this article, most harassment occurs from top-down. Most hospitality business owners – hell, most hospitality business management – I know are great people. I like to think that they would be disappointed to know what happens to their staff in a day. So, here are three things owners and managers can do to help eliminate systematic harassment in hospitality:
Encourage the discussion. Staff often feel uncomfortable coming forward out of fear of retribution from the accused or those who take the side of the accused, demotion, or even losing their job. And calling out a patron (or employee) for sexual harassment when that patron (or employee) believes they were “just fooling around” is difficult. In my experience, the accused get very defensive and try to justify their behaviour or otherwise seek instant forgiveness. It’s important to let them know exactly what they did and why it was wrong.
Implement a harassment policy. Up until last month, our Good Robot “Manifesto” did not include a section on discrimination and harassment. It’s important to put it in writing and impress it upon every staff member upon hiring. Within this policy, be sure to include the path of action a harassee should take upon incident, especially who they should go to.
Confront it. Change is uncomfortable. I can tell you that it sucks to tell your own patrons they’ve behaved inappropriately. It sucks to give your own patrons, many of whom may be long-time customers or really love your spot, a formal warning about inappropriate behaviour. I want my customers to feel good and welcome. However, if you believe in your staff and want the best for them and your patrons, it is important to confront the perpetrator. I, myself, tend to learn lessons best when I suffer with guilt. And chances are the perpetrator will never act in such a manner again. Remember Dani’s point: sexualization of the industry and social “othering” can lead an otherwise good person to act shitty. It happens.
Harassment is a topic that cannot be resolved in one article. Likewise, I largely focused herein on sexual harassment as applied to non-male staff. Harassment and discrimination take many forms against many people. The Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission has an excellent write-up on the matter. This is just a starting point to hopefully encourage some discussion. Or it might go completely unnoticed. Either way, I want my family to know they don’t have to tolerate harassment.
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