When many of us think of abuse, we think of violent interactions that occur over an extended time. While that picture is certainly not wrong, it paints a very monolithic story of how abuse happens. Abuse can be exacted even without physical interaction and often by secondary parties.
Abuse is just as diverse as its survivors and perpetrators. We commit a huge injustice to our communities when we only speak of abuse as a binary model. The reality of the matter is that abuse is practiced. And abusers cannot practice their craft without the passive or direct complicity of others. Some readers may immediately cringe at the thought that they have been complicit in an abusive cycle. But being complicit in abuse is much simpler than we’d like to believe. Let’s start with two hypothetical stories that unfortunately overlap with real life events daily.
Our first tale is is focused on a group of coworkers at a bar. After a long shift, Jane and a few colleagues headed to their favorite late night dive where they ran into a high level manager from work. It’s not uncommon for employees to run into managers and have a drink, but this evening something was a little different. Seth, the manager approached Jane, tried to kiss her, and stuck his hand up her skirt multiple times. She consistently pushed him away. The sexual assault escalated and he punched her in the face.
Jane’s coworkers watched in utter disbelief. One of them tried to intervene, but did not want to do so physically—this is their boss after all. Fast forward a few days: the incident is reported at work, but the manager only received a slap on the wrist. Management classifies the assault as a “work-place adjacent situation.” The term means that the infraction did not happen within the physical confines of the business, theoretically limiting management’s jurisdiction. The perpetrator kept his job and months later, when it was time for him to move onto a new position, he did so with no baggage. In fact, he arrived at job interviews with sterling recommendations from former employers. His past bosses did not witness the event in question and continued to leverage their social capital to help him out—after all, they didn’t see “IT,” it being the thing they refuse to name, assault.
In the hospitality industry many of our friends and work colleagues overlap. Those overlapping interactions become more prevalent and easy with events like cocktail weeks and regional clubs. The next story is messy, but it’s a perfect example of what happens when leadership responsibility roles aren’t defined and when organizations don’t have anti-abuse clauses that explicitly state standards and expectations of engagement.
Brianne joined a club within the industry in the hopes of expanding her network and career. Through this organization, she was introduced to Jim. Jim seemed nice enough and held a leadership role in the group. They exchanged info, but quickly Jim’s correspondences turned inappropriate, and then sexually harassing. Brianne ultimately reached out to multiple members of leadership for help, including Laura , one of the primary leaders. Laura made an initial effort to remove Jim, but when that failed, she became defensive and engaged in victim shaming. The complaint was handed off to the operational manager of the group, Arthur. Laura focused her own efforts on promoting social events. Brianne continued to make leadership aware of her concerns. Laura employed harmful rhetoric defending her leadership team–to the point she became an active accessory to the abuse regardless of her intentions. You may notice that now the accountability of the abuse has now shifted from an individual to an entire organization. However, how do you hold leadership of an organization accountable when their whole premise is, once again, work-place adjacent? There is no physical space to hold them accountable, only the sphere of their control–a space that constructs then collapses as quick as the hourly events they put on?
In both these cases, it’s clear who is to blame: Seth and Jim. However, what are the responsibilities of the bar, former bosses, Laura, and Arthur? Is business-as-usual from leadership inherently at odds with the very concept of leadership? To be a leader is to assume a certain amount of responsibility over people’s safety. Note, I say ‘leadership’ because to place the blame purely on one person would be dismissing the complicit behavior on every level in both of these stories.
How do we obstruct abuse patterns, and how do we prevent predators from exacting abuse in the first place? And what do we do as a community when businesses and organizations refuse to hold their constituents accountable?
Let’s begin by dismissing the claims we should ALL just be hospitable and nice, tossing out mantras, like the current industry fave, “Don’t be a dick.” Not only are these statements subjective, they are also dismissive–they set no real expectations of how we expect people to behave and what behaviors will not be tolerated.
It’s time to stop solely relying on reactionary vagaries and move to specific models of prevention and actionable steps towards community accountability and justice.
What is justice? Often, we speak of justice as equivalent to tangible consequences. Even more often, we frame the word in a way that implies legal recourse. Nothing is wrong with this context, but justice is not one-size fits all–not even in the criminal justice sphere.
So, I’ll ask again, ‘What is justice?’ Well, that’s a question for the survivor(s) and they should have the time and space to really think about that. Advocating without first talking to the survivor about their ideas of justice sets a false pretense of possibilities. In addition to forcing survivors to reopen old wounds without anyone answering for the initial damage.
There are many models for approaching community accountability, but I’ll focus on the two most common: restorative and transformative justice. Below the two models are concisely defined:
Restorative Justice is a model that enables victims and affected members of the community to be directly involved in responding to the crime, sometimes this can include the offender too. All parties become central to the legal process with governmental and criminal professionals serving as facilitators of a system that aims at providing reparation to the victims. Restorative justice should be looked at as a micro accountability model focused mainly on REACTING to abuse. It’s focused on legal justice and victim reparations. If victims are interested in taking legal recourse this model can be a great facilitator for support.
Transformative Justice is a model based on collective reconciliation, meaning every individual affected by the abusive (or problematic) behavior is given the opportunity to address and repair the harm. The person who has committed the offense is then held accountable to the survivor. The community supports both parties in supportive healing steps for the survivor and rehabilitation (if viable) for the abuser. Transformative justice is a model rooted in trained community facilitators, but does not involve the criminal justice system. The practice is a hybrid accountability model concerned with not only reacting to abuse, but creating preventative measure so that the abuse does not occur again.
As a community we should be setting up preventative care systems to define expectations of behavior. We also need systems that address abusive behaviors when these expectations are not met. Here are a few questions to get your brain moving.
- Does your job/community have value statements or handbooks that explicitly states expectations of employees? Not broad stroke verbiage or references to extremes of abuses such as violent behavior, but explicitly detailed definitions of behaviors that are inappropriate?
- Do you or your employees have a system for reporting abuse including those that are not physically threatening, but emotionally disruptive?
- Does your value system touch on work-place adjacent spheres such as out of work events or social media?
Preventative care models and systems are necessary for creating safer spaces for our community. If we do not have preventative care measures, we are accepting that abuse is not only a possibility, but a reality. Reactionary steps only for handling abuse creates a cyclical environment. They allow abusers to practice predatory behavior and then allow abuse to escalate until it’s checked. So here a few basic suggestions.
- If you don’t have a value statement/ handbook, create one. Involve staff in this process. Allowing staff to have equity in the creation is a micro-accountability measure. The process may bring up past issues, so be prepared to talk about them, and consider bringing in an outside moderator. Start by defining your core values. From that point, create explicit definitions of what abusive behavior looks like. Be careful when you are hashing out what abuse looks like. Stay focused on abusive actions or specific language and not stereotypes of what abusers look like.
- All employees, but especially leadership, should look at their communication styles. If you can’t negotiate with different communication styles you cannot reach resolutions or build systems to support safer spaces.
- Define how ALL employees should deal with conflict. People have conflict; it is a natural part of human interaction. Equating conflict with abuse leaves no room for opposing ideas. Issues arise when there is no model for individuals to work through conflict in a respectful way that recognizes power dynamics.
Moving Forward & Looking Back
The steps I’ve given are just the beginning, but I ask you to turn the mirror on yourself. Ask if you know someone who is abusive? Then examine the ways you have tried to stop that abuse? If you haven’t taken action, think about how your silence simultaneously reinforced their behavior (or at least given it a pass) and dismissed the person(s) receiving the abuse? If you can not answer or are not comfortable with the answer, ask yourself ‘why?’
Our community is hurting. And one truth that has stood the test of time is that hurt people, hurt people. Too many of us are standing witness to the trauma in our communities, worried about picking the wrong side. Both sides create the whole of our community, whether we like it or not. The fact of the matter is abusers aren’t produced in a lab free of environmental context. Just the opposite, they are groomed and move in and out of our spaces leaving emotional wastelands. And, they are all too aware of the fear we all hold in disrupting the very respectability politics that hospitality is built upon.
If we want to end patterns of abuse, we must stop relying on survivor trauma as the impetus for change. No more passive shaming questions like ‘Why weren’t charges filed?’ Legal action can only be instituted at the survivor’s behest. That choice is theirs and theirs solely. And survivors should not be managing our personal social expectations and value systems of how they navigate trauma. The real question is ‘Why did the perpetrator think their abusive behavior was acceptable?’
I’m asking once again that we all shift the center to edge. You can start by asking yourself. ‘What happens when I’m the abusive one?’
Ashtin Berry is a F&B consultant, speaker, and activist. She splits her time between New York City and New Orleans.
The text above is an op-ed and expresses only the opinion of the author, not Neat Pour or Neat Pour’s Editorial Board.