Updated: Jun 30, 2019
One of the reasons people resist the idea of physical boundaries in restaurants, is the whole concept of "friendliness." Well gosh a butt pat is just being, "friendly" to your teammate. Restaurant shifts can be a bit of a battle, there are time limits, and ultimately you get through the night and have a drink with your "friends." Just like a sports team, right?
Let's examine the differences, shall we. The first important thing to note, is that on a sports team a pat on the butt specifically means, "Go get 'em!" or "Way to go!" or "Let that dropped pass go, it's okay." In restaurants, touching someone's butt can have a variety of meanings, and more often than not, it is not meant to encourage. (Check out this article on the 5 reasons coworkers physically trespass on one another.)
On a sports team, touch isn't sexual. Okay we can't say that as a rule, but generally everyone is the same gender, and they're voluntarily involved in a very physical activity for fun, working toward a common goal. Football, for example, is often a lot of straight guys involved in a physical activity wherein they have to touch each other's butt to play. It isn't sexual to tackle someone, or to take the hike underneath your center's crotch. It's part of the job. Another example - going to see a proctologist.
When it isn't part of your job, and when there are diverse intentions in touch (and some of them very sexual or dominance based), it starts having really muddy energy. Put simply, it doesn't feel right. Your friend might touch your ass and that's relatively ok, and then that person who is always verbally disrespectful thinks they get to touch your ass too, and that feels gross. Then there's the guy who - clearly - thinks he gets to touch women wherever he wants to, and that feels disgusting and degrading. A customer drinking too much and trying to impress his friends - where do you draw the line? (Permitting trespass has consequences - check out this lawsuit story.)
One of the ways to look at boundaries within a company, is if one person gets to do it, then everyone gets to do it. Does everyone on this planet have the privilege of touching your ass? NO. Do you feel like being in a busy environment, where you have to individually inform coworkers they don't get to touch your ass, and have some of them intentionally ignore your boundary anyway? Overly sexualized environments have trespass occur all the time. Often the people who are the most verbally disrespectful are physically disrespectful as well. (Disrespectful people are those who don't care about how they impact others, and so being informed that they're negatively impacting you doesn't change behavior. Disrespectful people have to be informed by leaders who provide consequences to their behavior, in order to change.) Our approach to a sexual harassment policy with physical boundaries is to take the sexual areas of our bodies off the table. You would be hard-pressed to find a court that doesn't define grabbing a butt as sexual harassment (within a restaurant setting. Not at the proctologist.) But more importantly, don't strong boundaries create comfortable environments? Note - these boundaries are a legal right.
I once worked in restaurant where management's approach to sexual harassment was to tell the staff that, "anyone can touch anyone anywhere, until they tell them not to." First of all, that's illegal because you haven't given consent and workers are protected from sexual touch even more than outside of work (check out the article, "Groping Is A Crime.") And second of all, I can tell you that in that environment many people did not adjust their behavior after being told "no," and management didn't care about that either. Worse, people didn't stop at the "friendliness," of the butt, and indeed breasts were groped, crotches grabbed. There was such toxicity, and the environment was exhausting, difficult to work in, and the last place anyone wanted to be (including management). Does that create an environment worth giving your best to? NO. There is nothing more toxic than not being able to control who touches sexual parts of your body. More innocent interactions get dramatized as well, because people don't feel safe. It is the youthfulness of the industry, the ignorance, and the neglect that enables restaurant culture to continue to permit it - to the detriment of the company. Is that environment "fun?" I can tell you that there was a consistent unhappiness amongst the staff, that was cultivated on many levels. If an environment isn't respectful, does it feel good to be in?
How within restaurant culture, amongst a diverse group of people, do you ensure everyone's dignity and safety? By having everyone on the same page with strong boundaries in the first place.
There is a high school in our neighborhood that has this billboard in its sports field. My neighborhood is ethnically diverse, with many different cultures. This is the message they play to their neighbors and students, every day, all day:
They don't say, "Only a little hate allowed here," or "a little trespass is understandable." They practice zero tolerance, and love. The thing about zero tolerance is it doesn't mean that you're perfectly happy all the time, or that accidents and hurt feelings don't happen - they do. But they do not tolerate deameaning others, prejudice, or hatred. They do not tolerate trespass or degradation. It isn't permitted. Do you know how much clearer these standards make it for their students? Do you know how much they elevate their community? Do you know how much easier it is to navigate, when you know what your boundaries are? Do you know how much fewer problems they have?
When you have boundaries you also actually create team mentality (not the falsehood of a "team," that doesn't support one another toward a common goal). You want to create an environment where people care about how they impact one another.
"It is the responsibility of a company’s management to maintain an environment where everyone is respected, and this includes being aware of and honoring each employee’s sensitivities about physical touch." - Haeggquist & Eck, LLP
The thing about restaurants, is that everyone has the power. A bartender can delay your drinks, a busser can neglect your section, a cook can delay your food, a host can create chaos, a server can get you in trouble, and any supervisor (or favored employee) can negatively impact your schedule - solely for standing up for your rights (which is often viewed as being a trouble maker). And as nicely as you can voice, "hey, don't touch my (butt, breast, crotch)," people often have a negative reaction because there are no boundaries to begin with. It creates drama, some people experience it as rejection, and the work environment is always worsened. But nor should people be forced to experience trespass, nor should the employer illegally just let it happen. The thing about poor boundaries is that they always lead to trouble. The employee has legal rights and can pursue justice; the owner of the restaurant I mentioned was sued (not by me, though goodness knows I should have.)
The service industry creates more federally charged sexual harassment complaints than any other industry.
But more than avoiding lawsuits, don't you want a respectful environment that feels good to be in? Your staff environment will match the energetic tones of the least respectful among them. Those are the bullies who will keep people on edge, who will physically trespass, who will verbally demean, who will degrade. Respectful people will either leave or be diminished. Regardless of if you purchase our sexual harassment policy and resources, it is management's responsibility to defend and protect everyone from a hostile environment - but even more broadly, it's better to fix problems before they start.
It's not enough just to have a sexual harassment policy, it must be maintained. Without boundaries you will always be cleaning up after messes and drama, and that toxicity will rule your work environment. If you're going to do something, do it right. Boundaries are a good thing.