Sexual Harassment: The Service Family’s Unspoken Secret

By Editorial Board |

An Editorial…

Last week, celebrity chef John Besh made national headlines after New Orleans’ Times-Picayune released a long investigative piece depicting the chef and his 16 restaurants as a hive of sexual harassment. Social media spread the word, hailing the article as a bombshell. However, to women working in the industry, the article was not a bombshell; it was just another example of an endemic culture plaguing the industry. From the design of bar aprons to the very nature of the tipped labor, sexual harassment is ingrained in the hospitality business and change is past due.

Besh, who has now stepped down from his role in the company, cited his own “moral failings” as the root of the issues at his restaurants. But, “morality” is a distraction from a broken structure industry-wide, a means of dismissing a systemic problem as a one man’s slip-up. Although only seven percent of American women work in the restaurant industry, 37% of all sexual harassment claims to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) come from the restaurant industry. “Restaurant workers reported high levels of harassing behaviors from restaurant management (66%), co-workers (80%), and customers (78%),” according to a study by the service employee advocacy group, Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC). “60% of transgender, 50% of women and 47% of men reported experiencing ‘scary’ or ‘unwanted’ sexual behavior.” A female service industry worker elaborated, “Unfortunately, it’s just become the societal norm, and we have all accepted it and we all hate it.”

Courtesy ROC

Coworkers are the largest source of harassment and assault in the industry. ROC’s study notes that while all genders experienced harassment, women experienced a much higher frequency of incidents. The group places blame on an overly sexualized environment citing “revealing uniforms, the use of gendered nicknames instead of their actual names, the expectation of flirting and sexual joking as part of their job, and the perception that the work women carry out is less skilled or valuable.” Every hospitality worker that spoke with Neat Pour raised a far more obvious factor: a job description that includes drinking alcohol. Complicating matters is the common industry perception of a coworkers as “family” and the accompanying pressure to party with this family after closing. (Of course, bars, themselves, are also magnets for assault and harassment amongst patrons.)

The power dynamics of bars and restaurants also play a heavy role. Most front of house employees in America work for an adjusted minimum wage of $2.13 hourly plus tips (by law the tips and wage must equal at least $7.25 an hour), making them dependent on the customer’s gratuities for the majority of their income. The result is that bartenders and servers are faced with a Sophie’s choice scenario when confronted with unwanted advances from patrons. The employee essentially must pick between playing along with the customer in the hopes of netting a bigger tip or standing up for themselves, but walking with less money. In places with shared tips, the decision to pick dignity over dough can lead to backlash from coworkers upset about the smaller pool. The loss of agency is also present internally where many service workers talked about enduring comments from kitchen staff and bartenders because they were worried about retaliatory actions like their orders getting slowed down.

Then, there is the fact that most bars and restaurants are inherently structured to sexualize and disempower women. In the mid-19th century a campaign that included NYC unions and a SCOTUS ruling tried to prohibit women from working in bars; much of that discriminatory mentality still lingers. Government stats tell us that women comprise more than 60% of the hospitality workforce, but the cover two thirds of women in the industry are relegated to roles as hostesses and servers. Female staffers are routinely encouraged to “dress sexy” and “show more.” One female Houston bartender told ROC, “You need to be ‘date ready’… you need to wear more make-up, you need to wear short shorts; you have the assets, you need to flaunt it, kind of deal.” In many cases, the demands are formalized through tight and revealing uniforms; in extreme scenarios, servers are recruited solely on looks and legally forced to maintain a set weight. Bartending shifts are often assigned based on gender with women receiving the happy hour slots and men being assigned late-night because of the perception that they are “tougher.” Most establishments have no mechanism for reporting harassment; in smaller shops, HR departments are nonexistent and your typical bar only has one or two managers, meaning that perpetrators of harassment might be the same manager tasked with handling reported harassment.

Combined, these elements can represent a toxic workplace. In the wake of the craft cocktail boom, bartenders and service industry workers embarked on a campaign for recognition as a serious vocation. However, a casual workplace zeitgeist and party culture still persist. In order to achieve equality with their corporate counterparts, industry leaders must advocate for a clean break with the lack of infrastructure, mandatory after-hours debauchery, and oppressive pay scales that are so common in the biz. The first step will be acknowledging the issue and opening a dialogue; allegations against the likes of Besh are not outliers, but the norm. Then, workers must demand that businesses implement defined procedures for reporting harassment to create a path towards recourse. Hospitality has become increasingly progressive over the last two decades, yet no amount of shot-for-charity events will complete the job unless management begins to address the 800 pound gorilla in the room.

Photo by Glenn Harper. CC2.0

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