Article contributed by Rosa Abreu, Assistant Professor, New York City College of Technology
Recent reports in the media accusing prominent men of sexual harassment, assault and even rape have many operators openly and secretly concerned. As more and more women are empowered to share their stories, a cultural reckoning—the so-called #MeToo movement—is underway, shining a harsh light on grossly unjust workplace accountability norms allowed to go unchallenged for decades, across a dizzying number of industries. Time and again, these revelations allege instances in which the victim is blamed for the harassment, or—if the alleged harasser is considered a valued asset—she is dismissed by supervisors as uptight, overly sensitive or even an outright fabricator.
Far from being immune from the reckoning at hand, the hospitality industry has been one of the hardest hit, thanks as much to a few high-profile recent cases as to a pervasive culture of tolerance well known to insiders. There are thousands of stories of women being harassed in our industry, and it takes many forms, perpetrated not only by co-workers and supervisors but also by guests and vendors as well. A recent story that exemplified the problem in my particular industry was published on October 23, 2017. The New York Times reported that the Chef John Besh, a high-profile restaurant owner in New Orleans, stepped down amid a sexual harassment scandal, forced to remove himself from the company he co-founded after two dozen former female employees reported that they had sexually harassed while on the job, including allegations pointed directly at Mr. Besh himself. Chef Besh’s resignation came only after The Times-Picayune and NOLA.com conducted an investigation and published details of sexual harassment allegations from 25 current and former employees, further reporting that sexual harassment at the Besh Restaurant Group went unchecked and ignored by the company for years.
Failure to address sexual harassment claims can be costly in many ways to any company. The Besh Restaurant Group subsequently lost its business relationship with Harrah’s New Orleans Hotel and Casino, which promptly announced that its Besh Steak restaurant would be re-named. On December 11, 2017 Irene Plagianos and Kitty Greenwald of Eater New York, an online publication, reported that “Mario Batalli was stepping out away from his restaurant empire following allegations of sexual misconduct” and was fired from ABC’s The Chew. On January 2, 2018 The New York Times’ restaurant critic of Pete Wells published an article reporting that Chef Charlie Hallowell, who began his cooking career at the legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, had taken a leave from his restaurants’ operations over accusations of “sexual harassment and verbal abuse. “On December 12, 2017 Julia Moskin and Kim Severson of The New York Times published a scathing expose alleging that celebrity New York restaurateur Ken Friedman, owner of several prominent NYC restaurants, of numerous instances of sexual harassment.
Of course, all major companies already have sexual harassment policies in place. When a new employee attends orientation, he/she typically receives sexual harassment training and is made to sign a document acknowledging compliance with the company policy on sexual harassment for the duration of employment. In an ideal world, these agreements should stop anyone from engaging in questionable behavior. However, if a culture of intolerance for this type of behavior isn’t actively promoted and enforced by a company from the top down, accountability is lost.
Restaurant owners and operators: it is time to rewrite and promote a much tougher sexual harassment policy and culture. According to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the best way to recalibrate your business on sexual harassment is to ensure that:
- Leaders of the organization are engaged and committed, and consistently demonstrate accountability.
- Strong and comprehensive harassment policies are in place.
- Trusted and accessible complaint procedure is in place.
- Regular, interactive training tailored to the audience and the organization is undertaken
- Effective harassment training takes place.
Food operators large or small: business training and accountability are the key. Small businesses can consult a Human Resources Professional to assist or even conduct harassment training for you. Before the training there are tough questions to ask yourself:
- Are you fully committed to begin a new phase on intolerance of sexual harassment and assault?
- Are there any perpetrators in your organization you need to consider phasing out before training can even begin? A replacement must be found immediately.
- If you are the perpetrator, have do you an alternate plan for who will head your business.
- Have you considered the different cultures represented among your work force? Sexual Harassment and assault is tolerated–and often goes unpunished in many countries.
- Are you prepared to ask your management team to re-enforcement sexual harassment training in pre-shift meetings?
Considerations for harassment training:
- Close your place of business for a day, or if you cannot afford it, do it by shifts in a safe environment.
- Trainer must be credible and respected.
- Sign in form for trainees.
- A new or a more comprehensible policy translated and given to employees for whom English is a second language. This is important, as many employees will not admit they don’t know how to read the language.
- If you have a significant number of non-native speakers counted among your employees, it could be a good idea to place them in training groups with a trainer who is bilingual.
- Find ways to have informal rap sessions with employees, with your door open to the office.
- Be the example of your business.
- The take away will be a more relaxed workforce better prepared to take care of your guests.
As an operator and owner in today’s climate, your responsibility is vital to address this issue sooner rather than later. For some operators and owners, it may even be too late. However, this must not deter your moving forward and starting with a clean slate.