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Why Is Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry So Prevalent?

Harassment & Discrimination

Why Is Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry So Prevalent?

Restaurant workers and employers have long grappled with the pervasive issue of sexual harassment, with more harassment claims filed in this industry than any other. Employers must educate their food service employees about what constitutes harassing behavior, including unwanted sexual advances, verbal or physical actions of a sexual nature, and requests for sexual acts. Once employees know how to identify it, teaching them how to prevent and report if they witness or experience sexual harassment in the restaurant industry is essential to tackling this issue head-on.

The Alarming Statistics of Sexual Harassment in Restaurants

According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), 14.23% of EEOC sexual harassment claims came from Accommodation & Food Services, which is the largest percentage of reports to come from one industry. Of course, this doesn’t even include harassment that was handled internally without an EEOC report or situations that weren’t reported at all.

Within the industry, a huge majority, 90% of women and 70% of men, have reportedly experienced harassment in the workplace. A report from The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that of women who face harassment in their work at a restaurant, more than half experience it on a weekly basis. These statistics not only raise concerns about the well-being of restaurant workers but also underscore the pressing need for effective interventions and systemic change.

Uncovering the Root Causes of Sexual Harassment

Research shows that the primary reason for sexual harassment in restaurants is the culture of tipping and customer satisfaction. Because so many food service employees, particularly women, rely on tips to supplement their subminimum wages, they feel that they must comply with whatever their customers wish to say or do in the hopes of receiving a fair tip. But even that is oftentimes not enough. According to a report from One Fair Wage and UC Berkeley, 50% of women and 58% of women of color working at restaurants have indicated that their current tip earnings fall short of reaching the full minimum wage. Restaurant sales models may also require employees to dress in sexualized uniforms or otherwise rely on their physical appearance to earn tips, further fostering a culture where harassment is both expected and tolerated.

The Power Dynamics at Play

In addition to women and those of color, other minority groups, such as undocumented workers and LGBTQIA+ communities, find themselves disproportionately vulnerable within the restaurant workforce. When food service employees find themselves in lower-paying or subminimum-wage positions, they can be unfairly viewed as inferior to their manager or supervisor. This power dynamic plays a large role in victims choosing not to report harassment, either at the hands of their employer, coworkers, or customers, due to fear of retaliation — an adverse action, such as lost shifts or being fired in response to reporting harassment or discrimination.

The influence of the customer satisfaction business model further complicates the issue, affecting how management responds to harassment incidents. When restaurants espouse the values of “service with a smile” or “the customer is always right,” supervisors may be reluctant or even unwilling to address customers engaging in harassment, putting them in a complicit role.

High Employee Turnover Rates

Another cause of restaurant industry harassment includes a high turnover rate among employees. Restaurants face a turnover rate much higher than the average, with employees choosing to leave for the promise of a better job elsewhere rather than dealing with harassing behavior or filing a complaint about it. Other seasonal employees work in a restaurant for only a short period of time, so they may choose to deal with the harassment until they leave instead of filing a report during their temporary tenure. This can lead to a workplace culture where harassers, either fellow employees or customers, do not face any consequences for their actions and turn their behavior onto someone else. It’s easy to see how high employee turnover creates a work environment where harassment goes unaddressed rather than being stopped.

The Ripple Effects on Employees and Workplaces

Restaurant industry harassment frequently leads to mental health challenges, notably Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), causing intrusive memories, nightmares, and emotional distress for survivors. Beyond psychological impacts like anxiety and depression, survivors may grapple with diminished self-worth and physical symptoms such as panic attacks. While retaliation is illegal, those who report harassment may still experience financial hardships, including lost shifts or unpaid wages.

The creation of a hostile workplace due to harassment further exacerbates the impact on workplaces, with studies indicating a strong link between sexual harassment victims and workplace avoidance, even surpassing other outcomes like turnover. The organizational impact extends to reduced job satisfaction, not just in survivors but in bystanders too, and negative repercussions on performance and profitability. In fact, companies that have terms like “sexual harassment” frequently mentioned on their job review sites can face reputational damage and stock returns as low as –13%.

Best Practices to Combat Harassment in the Restaurant Industry

Employers bear legal responsibility for addressing any form of sexual harassment within their workforce. Failure to promptly and appropriately address known instances of harassment may lead to potential legal consequences. One of the best ways to prevent harassment before it occurs is by regularly reviewing and updating policies to ensure they remain effective as the restaurant industry grows and changes, especially regarding new legislation on tipping for minimum wage employees.

Implementing clear reporting mechanisms and support systems for claimants, including education about the illegality of retaliation, is another best practice for preventing harassment, as is regular training. In several states, sexual harassment training is required for most employees, and it is highly recommended by the EEOC in states where it is not required. The right harassment prevention training can help prevent discriminatory incidents and harassing behavior, improving employee retention and creating a positive work environment.

Moving Forward with Awareness & Training

Ensure a harassment-free workplace in your restaurant effortlessly with EasyLlama's Restaurant Harassment Prevention Training. Our tailored courses are designed to cultivate awareness and prevention strategies within the restaurant environment, with modern and engaging videos depicting real-life scenarios that your employees are likely to encounter on the job, making the training experience highly relatable and practical.

As a responsible restaurant owner or franchisee, our one-stop solution simplifies compliance goals, offering flexibility for your staff to start and stop across any device. Say goodbye to time-consuming logins or required email accounts; our streamlined training requires just a single click, making it hassle-free for your busy restaurant team. Take the first step towards a harassment-free workplace — get started with EasyLlama’s Restaurant Harassment Prevention Training today!

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