Restaurants and Sexual Harassment

I recently did a consult for an established restaurant who was having an issue with one of their line cooks harassing a waitress and thought this is always a good thing to revisit.

For owners, managers and employees, the most important thing is documentation.

If SH happens in the work place: Document, Document, Document!

While it happens in many industries, foodservice has a large portion of the pie in that it happens quite a bit.

Education about it and how to deal with it has become better, and the follow though with employers dealing with the issues instead of just ignoring the problem has been better overall, but it still continues to be an ongoing problem.

Unfortunately, some innocent people have been taken to court for harassment.

People working with other people need to be more careful then ever, in what they say and do because it can be easily misinterpreted.

An example:  an owner I had worked for a few years ago was a touchy, feely, huggy person with a heart of gold. A pat on the back or a big hug after a job well done was typical with him. His touchiness was never inappropriate and all of his employees adored him, because we felt like he loved us and he treated us like his family.

One fall we had a new waitress come to work at the restaurant. She only worked at the restaurant for several weeks and then she quit suddenly one day and we didn’t hear from her again for several months. When next we heard from her it was an invitation to appear in court to testify that our boss was a sexual harasser. We were all floored.

We did appear in court and testified for him that his manner had never been sexual, and this woman had obviously misunderstood. Evidently at the job this lady had before she started working with us, she did have to deal with a sexual harasser and was unable to tell the difference.

Our boss was cleared of the charges but his reputation was besmirched as the suit had been in all of the local papers. Our boss had to really think about his actions after that to see if they could possibly be misconstrued. The woman later apologized to him and wished she had taken the time to talk to other employees and her manager about it first before picking up and leaving without a word to anyone.

This is not to say that most harassment is innocent. It’s not. But it can happen, so if you are a person that does things or says things unmeaningly that can be misconstrued, be careful!

People working with other people need to be more careful then ever, in what they say and do because it can be easily misinterpreted.

The Ugly Truth that unfortunately is the Majority of the Time:

If you feel you are being harassed or you see signs of it in the workplace, report it! It does happen!

If the harasser is your direct superior, go higher if possible. If not, there are other avenues that you can use. But the most important thing is document it, if you have witnesses, get their information in writing with signatures and contact information. Some people will be afraid to come forward for fear of losing their jobs or some other sort of retaliation, but most people will stand up for what’s right and there is, in the case of something going to court, confidentiality.

If you are being sexually harassed or know someone who is, please consider that the person doing the harassing is not new to this, it has happened before and will continue to happen again unless something is done. Think beyond the fact that even if you leave or the person that is being harassed leaves, that does not make the problem go away and that person will make someone else’s life a living hell in the future unless he or she is reported.

Men who are harassed in the industry are generally too afraid to say anything about it, so much of that area does go unreported. I have heard countless stories (and seen some firsthand) of waiters getting harassed by the head waiter or a cute young cook getting come on to by the owner’s wife.  This is harassment and it can happen to anyone, regardless of gender, age or orientation.

Harassment is not limited to men abusing women, it crosses age and gender lines. It is not a laughing matter and whether the person is male or female it is still sexual harassment and it needs to be reported.

If you are an owner or management in hospitality, harassment should not be tolerated under ANY circumstances. If dealing with employees, the employee in question needs to be dealt with with a heavy hand. Two strikes Your Out! No ifs ands or buts.

If this employee is someone key to your operation and you think you can’t do without them, look at what can happen to you if a case goes to court or other bad circumstances come about, but most importantly take a good hard look at yourself and ask, “Is it ok to let this continue to happen?” What if the harassment was happening to a member of YOUR family, it’s the same damn thing.

Updated: 2/17/10, a great post on thing to avoid when dealing with SH issues: A Sexual Harassment Complaint? Ten Responses to Avoid

About Chef Forfeng

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