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What really creates harassment and toxic work culture in restaurants? How do we create differently?

Updated: Jun 15, 2019

What creates harassment? What makes restaurant's culture ignore the dignity of its workers?

In order to address the solution to harassment, we'd like to begin with its cause. Within restaurant culture there exists a pervasive ignorance as to the legal right to physical boundaries, as well as to dignity.  Most restaurants function without sexual harassment policies (though their workforce needs the protection, education, and support the most).  Environments without boundaries are subject to the energetic tones of the most disrespectful among them... But toxic work environments, physical trespass - what enables an industry to neglect the rights of its workers? Firstly, restaurants are about service.

“There’s an inherent dehumanization that’s part of any service job,” said Mark Schettler, general manager of Bar Tonique in New Orleans (and co-creator of Shift Change – a New Orleans organization dedicated to ending sexual assault.) “The first thing you have to do to commit violence against someone is to dehumanize them. And sexual harassment is a form of violence.”

Dehumanization begins as misperceiving someone as less human. Less worthy of dignity, respect, and rights. There are several ways human beings are dehumanized within restaurants. Certainly, just donning a uniform creates an aspect of dehumanization. But let's really get into the permission for sexual harassment within restaurant culture, and the potential for trespass, degradation, and sexual assault. How do we start to look at others, as unworthy of dignity and basic human rights?

“We know that workplace incivility often acts as a ‘gateway drug’ to workplace harassment.” (Chai Feldblum, EEOC Commissioner.)

It's the incivility (the accepted disrespect and lack of dignity - the dehumanization) that is a gateway to more morally reprehensible acts, because it is the beginning of moral disengagement. In her article from Psychology Today, Sherry Hamby Ph.D. explores dehumanization as described by psychologist Albert Bandura. “All moral disengagement techniques are tricks to get people to accept behaviors that they would otherwise immediately recognize as unethical and unfair,” Hamby says. Sometimes, as humans, we forget that it's another human being standing across from us with their own dreams and aspirations, their own family, their own pursuit of happiness.

One of the ways we dehumanize people, is to view others as belonging to separate, inferior groups. Psychology student Clara Riggio points to "hinting at the sub-par intelligence or morality of a group." So when coworkers get relegated to categories like "sluts," or "idiots," for example, it becomes far easier for people to justify harassment, because that is what that group "deserves."

"Any time someone reduces a human being to a single characteristic, especially a negative one... rob people of the full complexity of their lives... All slurs (insults based on race, gender, sexual orientation, health status or other characteristic) are also dehumanizing."(Sherry Hamby, Ph.D.) 

Even beyond the moral disengagement of grouping people into a category not deemed worthy of respect, in our culture there is INCREDIBLE ignorance as to the legal right to physical boundaries and dignity for all.  In restaurants, some people have forgotten that any inherent dehumanization they have relegated others to, does not negate their right to boundaries.  People do not have to earn this protection, and it is not a privilege only for some.  Physical boundaries are a right.  Not to be harassed at your workplace is a right.  Curiosity and attraction alone do not warrant the priviledge to intimately touch someone, and in work environments physical boundaries are even more protected.    Yet in the restaurant industry specifically, there is a level of neglect that it is too pervasive to ignore. Sometimes this sexual attention leads to physical trespass, and as a culture, we have to continue our collective education in this manner.  The government does not excuse the restaurant industry from upholding these standards because it is a physical industry.  But the service industry still seems to think so. Why does our industry permit it?

There is a machismo that can exist within kitchens, and so many things that feed into it. In a high stress culture, sometimes "respect" gets mistook for fear. There is a hierarchy. In toxic environments people try to maintain power through degrading others. In kitchens there can be an "us versus them," mentality. Sometimes kitchens feel like the front of the house is on the other side of the battlefield. There is income disparity, and when you're exhausted you blame the people sending the orders (the servers). These male dominated kitchens can also misperceive what "respect," means. There can be abuse of power.

Likewise, sometimes the front of the house can forget what respect means too. There can be adversarial relationships because it is about the individual, and not the team. Sometimes there is an ingratitude for fellow coworkers, and all of the hard work that comes from the kitchen. In toxic environments, the departments are noncollaborative and each feel that the other department is making their job harder (and they are, because they don't know the root of their problems). There is a general unhappiness and disorganization that puts everyone into survival mode. It's hard to be feel gratitude, when everyone feels disrespected. And it really is a battle to get through the night. When you are in survival mode, the humanity of someone else falls away.

Restaurants often have an overly sexualized culture and with no physical boundaries; it's a culture that condones trespass. Not only does the service industry have the highest number of sexual harassment claims, a government study has shown this industry also has the highest rate of substance abuse. There's an impairment of judgement there, and a normalization of degradation. Overly sexualized environments also normalize the objectification (and dehumanization) of women. When a women is perceived as a sex object (for her body, and someone else's sexual gratification only) her humanity is gone and the treatment of her is equal to the misperception of her.

In its worst expression, this dehumanization can (and does) lead to violence and sexual assault. 

Immigrants are always part of a restaurant staff, and in todays political climate face more struggle than ever. They are often dehumanized (particularly within the Trump administration), vilified, and viewed as less worthy of dignity. We live in a world where our government looks to create enemies and find outsiders to blame; whole ethnic groups are pointed to as the enemy, and as the source of our problem.* (see author's note below)

“We have this incredible capacity for cooperation; it’s what makes us human in many ways,” psychologist Nour Kteily says. “And yet we have this capacity for othering.”

"Dehumanization can also be part of the cycle of violence. People who were mistreated as children can wall themselves off as a defense," says Hamby. "Some people have under-developed skills of empathy and perspective taking, and when you think about it that way, it suggests solutions." Some of the most disrespectful people I've worked with, have had the most painful backgrounds. (And some of the kindest people I've known, have had the most painful backgrounds). We all learn our behavior from somewhere. Some of sexual harassment is just genuine ignorance that perpetuates itself because it hasn't been addressed. I've seen coworkers completely mistake friendliness as welcoming sexual touch. And in a busy workplace, you don't get to drop what you're doing to address it. In order to be professional, to do your job well (and to even have a job reference), you don't get to yell, or slap someone in the face (as you might in a social setting). There is an inability to acknowledge how you feel in the moment. Not only that - it's embarrassing, hard to talk about, and demeaning, when a coworker thinks they have the right to touch your breast, your butt, or brush up against you. The industry standard of managing your boundaries on your own (which disrespectful people absolutely ignore anyway) is ineffective and exhausting. The backlash from standing up for your boundaries (and potentially getting someone else in trouble) is utterly disheartening. And all of it makes you feel powerless. The silence that this industry perpetuates reinforces to disrespectful people that this behavior is accepted. In the corporate world, your boss has the power. In the restaurant world, everyone has the power. You cannot serve drinks that aren't made, or food without it being given, you cannot manage your section without help, and you will not work if you don't fit in well with the team. Your schedule is at the mercy of complying with current standards, and any discussion of boundaries means you're a troublemaker and a complainer. Many people in this industry live paycheck to paycheck; they cannot afford not to work. Often there are no consequences for poor behavior, only repercussions for standing up to it. There is no one to reinforce your boundaries, because the industry hasn't acknowledged that those legal rights exist.

The service industry can be dehumanizing. There can be a lack of respect for the workers, amongst the workers, and there is no one reminding each other, that it matters how we impact the person standing next to us. That your coworker is a human being who has the right to physical boundaries and to dignity. I think people are often ignorant of how other people feel, and it takes an intention to be open, and care. The cure for sexual harassment involves acknowledging what is unacceptable (CLEAR BOUNDARIES), eliminating the potential for physical trespass, and ongoing openness about what a respectful environment is. There is a backward approach to sexual harassment that utterly misses the point. A common misperception and fear about sexual harassment discussions, is that it's about getting people in trouble, accusations, and creating sterile empty work environments where people are afraid to move. What it's about, is wanting to be able to show up to do your job well. There shouldn't be fear in those discussions or an over-emphasis on proof or punishment. There should be clear boundaries, consequences of not upholding standards, corrective measures, and a constant navigation to a respectful team environment. The service industry hasn't had the tools and the awareness of how to create that, but we do and they're ready to start. Restaurants haven't yet fully correlated disrespectful work environments with a loss of profit, exhausting to manage, and the sacrifice of job satisfaction. But they will. The interesting thing is, a respectful environment creates the core of what everyone actually wants. They want social connection, fun, ease in their effort, they want to create well, to learn new things, and everyone wants respect (some people try to obtain it through fear or degradation, but what they want is respect). The industry is just on the brink of realizing the unnecessary aspects of their problem, but they don't know how to truly create standards of respect yet.

Sexual harassment is experienced by all gender identifications, and every sexual orientation - this is an issue that affects everyone. So how, in the diverse climate of restaurant culture, do you create respectful work environments?

There must be "an acknowledgment that harassment exists, that it’s wrong, that it demands consequences, and—perhaps most important—that the people in charge know it. If that sounds absurdly simple, that’s because it is." (Helen Rosner, NY Times)

There must be two focuses. The first is to enforce strong physical boundaries (because these are a legal right of every human being that the restaurant industry has been rather neglectful of - and working in close quarters should never give permission for trespass). When you enforce this standard of respect (that everyone has the right to dignity and to protect the sexual parts of their body) not only do you protect your employees, you remind them what standards of respect really are. They feel a part of a respectful environment and participate in maintaining it.

Secondly, you keep an open dialog about what respect really means, and there needs to be an outline of unacceptable verbal behavior as well. Of course, sometimes people offend others without knowing. Now, again, NO ONE HAS THE RIGHT TO TOUCH THE SEXUAL PART OF SOMEONE ELSE'S BODY, DEMEAN, OR MAKE THEM FEEL UNSAFE, but you must give your employees the space to inform each other about broader boundaries. "That joke crossed a line." "I'm not a hugger." "That made me feel uncomfortable." "Your behavior is unwelcome, and if it continues I'll be forced to involve a manager." There should be open dialog. (Additionally, the bystander training we provide truly encourages everyone to navigate to respect as a team.  It's a choice.)  If an employee doesn't feel comfortable talking with their coworker, a manager or HR must hold space for the conversation and end the harassment. If someone feels demeaned, it is a threat to the whole team. Any kind of harassment can wear down employees and create a hostile environment. Not every discussion needs to end in punishment, just a deeper awareness and growth. It's important to create a communicative space where problems don't have to escalate - they are addressed as they need to be (like weeding a garden). We aren't all mind readers and sometimes we do need someone else to say what their comfort level is. It also teaches people emotional intelligence, and empathy. Respectful work environments make the space for people to care about how a coworker feels, because the emphasis isn't on the individual it is on the contribution to the team. This is a key element moving forward in your business. When it's about a respectful environment for each member on your team, there is something to navigate to that is bigger than hurt feelings. The emphasis is always on moving forward, and it's about the broader intention that the workers have already agreed to uphold.

I think owners have feared the potential of having to micro-manage so many complaints if a sexual harassment policy were put in place, but actually when you give people a safe, respectful environment with boundaries, it's much easier for them to navigate on their own. They will do their jobs better. Problems don't have to escalate, because everyone knows what the standards are, and that they are empowered to communicate and contribute. Sexual energy finds much healthier expression outside of the business. More importantly, when you create a team mentality that includes true standards of respect, there is an expectation that everyone deserves dignity. Because everyone does.

Check out our sexual harassment policy (resources and solutions) here.

Part of maintaining a respectful environment, also means creating a collaborative one. You don't want your departments working against each other; you want your restaurant working together as a team. Let us help you get there. Contact us.

*Author's note on immigrants - I have worked in many restaurants along the west coast, and worked with many immigrants. On the whole, less than half of them have been Mexican (because our country has immigrants from many nations). They work hard (typically in jobs that no one else wants to have), and are trying to create the best lives they can for their families. To blame and vilify a nonviolent nation (Mexico), and to waste an incredible sum of money "protecting" our nation without even actually addressing the issue, seems so strange to me. More immigrants over-stay their visa, than enter through the border. But more broadly, with a government who would waste such money on an unnecessary wall, would the Americans who support it really see an increase in their income and safety? With what immigrants contribute to society, do we really know what the "problem" is? Can we look to our history, and see what happens when leaders spread hatred, create enemies, and misplace blame?

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