How Restaurants Can Prevent Sexual Harassment

Don’t let this inappropriate behavior become part of your culture.
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Have a documented sexual harassment policy in place and make sure it is included in your employee handbook. (Photo: Pressmaster/Shutterstock)

The #TimesUp and #MeToo movements have shined a light on a pervasive problem in the American workplace: sexual harassment. But the problem isn’t confined to Hollywood — it impacts every type of business, especially restaurants.

In an analysis of unpublished data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Center for American Progress found that the accommodation and food services industry (which includes hotels, restaurants, cafes, etc.) had a higher volume of sexual harassment claims than any other industry, accounting for more than 14 percent of all claims from 2005 to 2015.

“Harassment and intimidation have been a part of [the restaurant] culture for years and years,” said Stephen Zagor, dean of the School of Restaurant and Culinary Management at the Institute of Culinary Education. “Most restaurants don’t have HR departments or resources to understand what’s going on, and that creates egregious opportunities for things like this to happen.”

While an expensive lawsuit might be the most obvious result of a sexual harassment claim from a worker, it’s not the only way bad behavior can negatively impact your restaurant, said Zagor.

“It’s a morale breaker. Customers can see it’s not a happy place to work, and it can create a bad environment and high turnover.”

But just because it’s pervasive in the industry, doesn’t mean your restaurant has to be a breeding ground for bad behavior. Here Zagor shares tips on how you can prevent sexual harassment, build an empowering workplace culture and protect your business.

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“Preventing sexual harassment starts with the culture of your business, especially the owner.”(Photo: Steve Zagor)

Start talking about it

Developing a culture of respect and understanding is the first step toward preventing sexual harassment at your restaurant, said Zagor. Start building that culture by addressing other bad behaviors that might already exist at your restaurant.

“Preventing sexual harassment starts with the culture of your business, especially the owner. Is extreme negativity acceptable? Do you allow your chef to scream at the staff? Are people uncomfortable when they walk in the door?” he said.

Making sure your staff understands and exhibits acceptable behavior will help create an environment that doesn’t tolerate sexual misconduct. When staff feel safe, Zagor said, they’re more likely to speak out against sexual harassment if they see it happening.

Create a sexual harassment policy

The lines of what separates sexual harassment from mere friendliness are blurry. You can provide more clarity about acceptable behavior at your restaurant by creating a sexual harassment policy, said Zagor.

“While there’s no single definition of sexual harassment, it generally involves unwanted attention that makes someone uncomfortable and creates a hostile work environment. There has to be a documented policy in place, written in a way that everyone can understand.”

The International Labour Organization offers a sample sexual harassment policy that you can edit to fit the needs of your restaurant. Beyond laying out behavior guidelines, your policy should also include a protocol for reporting claims and assurance that there is no retribution for speaking up, said Zagor.

“There must be a clear set of paths to report violations — whether it’s a toll-free phone number to call or text to a third party; a designated on-site person or manager; or even, at the very least, an anonymous internal comment box to mention that a problem exist,” wrote Zagor in a recent blog post on the topic.

Once the policy is finalized, put a copy in your employee handbook and make sure every member of your staff receives a copy and agrees to follow it. Post a copy of it in a non-customer facing area of your restaurant, so staff can review it.

Train your staff

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Once a policy has been created, make sure you proactively enforce it and encourage employees to speak up about bad behavior. (Photo: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

Designing a policy isn’t enough to prevent sexual harassment from occurring in your restaurant, said Zagor. Its rules need to be reinforced frequently so staff clearly understand them.

“The policy can’t be something you put on a shelf and only look at when there’s an issue. It needs to be proactively mentioned,” he said.

Put the policy in action in a safe environment by doing role plays at employee meetings, advised Zagor. Managers should also be made aware of the signs of sexual harassment and trained to nip it in the bud. Remind everyone to speak up against bad behavior, even if it’s not happening to them.

“There’s often a code of silence around sexual harassment in restaurants. People might know it’s happening, but don’t want to say anything because they’re friends with someone involved. But you need to break the code of silence to stop it from happening,” said Zagor.

Investigate every claim

With a supportive culture, clear policy and adequate training, your restaurant is already ahead of the game in terms of preventing sexual harassment. However, the only way to show you’re truly serious about stopping bad behavior is to investigate it as soon as a claim is made, said Zagor.

“Not every claim is real, but every claim needs to be investigated. You should do an analysis and talk to all the associated coworkers to get a full picture of what’s going on.”

Restaurant staff can often be close-knit, making it tough to conduct an objective investigation of a sexual harassment claim. A third-party workplace investigator can come in and help you discover the truth about a claim, without letting personal feelings about staff members get in the way, said Zagor.

One you have an understanding of what actually happened, you can determine appropriate disciplinary measures, if necessary.

It’s not just employees

Most sexual harassment policies are focused on preventing unwanted behavior between members of the staff. However, there’s another group of people that could also behave poorly: your customers.

“We always forget that customers can be as harassing as employees can be. Restaurants are very sexy businesses, and selling good times and good feelings can have implications, creating gray boundaries in the dining room,” said Zagor.

Remind your staff that they should never tolerate sexual harassment from anyone, including customers. Encourage staff to speak to their managers if they become a victim of unwanted behavior from a customer. Your management should determine the best course of action to protect an employee from a customer who’s acting up.

Protecting your staff from sexual harassment will ultimately protect your business from lawsuits and a damaged reputation. But it will also help make your establishment one in which employees feel good about every day, and contribute to a cultural shift about workplace behavior.

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