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What’s the future of sexual harassment at restaurants?

What’s the future of sexual harassment at restaurants?

With the code of silence now broken, restaurants are ripe for change

This is part of Restaurant Hospitality’s ongoing series on sexual harassment in the restaurant industry.

In 1991, Anita Hill described the aggressive sexual overtures and pubic-hair-on-the-Coke-can joke of her former boss Clarence Thomas before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington. It was a formative moment that helped define what is now called sexual harassment in the workplace.

Now more than 25 years later, sexual harassment is very much in the headlines across multiple industries, including in restaurants. Many in the restaurant industry are watching the news unfold with a growing sense of horror.

We saw what this was 25 years ago. Shouldn’t we know better by now?

Indeed, training and policies to prevent sexual harassment are not uncommon, at least in bigger restaurant companies, largely pushed by lawyers trying to prevent liability.

Yet more charges of sexual harassment come from the hospitality world than any other industry, according to data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC.

And there are reasons for that, many argue.

The culture of American restaurants grew out of the male-dominated, machismo-fueled kitchens of Europe, where power was held firmly at the top and climbing the ladder meant enduring the physical and emotional demands of long days and high-pressure performance. Labor unions are largely absent, and notions of work-life balance or wellness are relatively new concepts that have yet to be widely adopted in the restaurant world.

Add to that a certain romanticized view of foul-mouthed chefs on TV like Gordon Ramsay and the drug- and alcohol-infused antics portrayed in Anthony Bourdain’s memoir “Kitchen Confidential.” Bourdain more recently described it as a “meathead culture” that has made the restaurant workplace “pervasively hostile to women.”

But it’s a culture that — finally —  can and will change, now that people have been more willing to call out sexual harassment, and now that perpetrators are seeing repercussions, said bartender Caroline Richter, who works at the acclaimed Turkey and the Wolf restaurant in New Orleans.

News of sexual harassment allegations involving prominent New Orleans restaurateur John Besh and his company has many in the restaurant industry wondering whether the tide is turning on bad behavior in kitchens. 

In October, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported news of sexual harassment allegations involving prominent New Orleans restaurateur John Besh. A few days later, Besh had stepped down as CEO of the restaurant group he co-owns, which operates 11 concepts including the celebrated August, Borgne, Dominica and Johnny Sánchez.

Women like Anita Hill may have helped define harassment in a white-collar setting, but now examples like that of John Besh’s company will help restaurant workers identify inappropriate behavior in their own work setting.

“It’s about education. I’ve had so many people say they didn’t necessarily know harassment when they saw it because it is so commonplace in the industry,” said Richter. 

“Maybe 25 years ago it was a little easier to identify in a white-collar workplace. But I’m glad we’re having that conversation now.”


The Center for American Progress in November analyzed EEOC data over the past decade and found that sexual harassment is pervasive across all industries, but more so in the hospitality industry than any other.

Looking at data from 2005 through 2015, the EEOC received more than 85,000 charges alleging sexual harassment. Of those about half, or 48.3 percent, included a designation indicating the industry in which it occurred.

The largest number of claims were found in the accommodation and food services industry, which accounted for 14 percent of sexual harassment claims in which an industry was indicated over that decade.

Similarly, a 2016 survey by Hart Research Associates found that two in five women working in fast food restaurants have been subjected to sexual harassment on the job. 

The survey asked about the type of behavior they experienced, and the most common was unwanted sexual teasing, jokes, remarks or questions (27 percent), unwanted hugging or touching (26 percent), and unwanted questions about their sexual interests or that of other workers (20 percent). Another 2 percent reported sexual assault or rape on the job.



Such charges are also blamed on other factors unique to restaurants.

It’s a workplace where young workers often get their start, and perhaps don’t know how to recognize inappropriate behavior or how to push back.

Immigrant workers, likewise, may not know their rights or may be vulnerable to threats of exposure. Low wages may force some to put up with bad behavior because they can’t afford to leave their job.

The Hart Research survey, for example, said that 60 percent of respondents that had experienced three or more types of unwanted behavior felt they had to put up with it because they couldn’t afford to quit.

“You’ve got such a mix of workers” in restaurants, said Atlanta attorney Andria Ryan, a partner in law firm Fisher Phillips and chair of the firm’s hospitality practice group. “There are a lot of young people in the front of the house, there’s a culinary team that tends to be a bit older and primarily men, and it’s an uncomfortable mix.”

Some say it’s about power. It’s all too easy for those in charge to leverage their positions to take advantage of underlings hoping to climb the career ladder.

“There’s an inherent dehumanization that’s part of any service job,” said Mark Schettler, general manager of Bar Tonique in New Orleans.

“The first thing you have to do to commit violence against someone is to dehumanize them. And sexual harassment is a form of violence.”

But it’s also about the impairment of judgment, which is also common in the industry, some say. 

Restaurant workers often end their night with drinks at the bar to blow off steam and that social environment is part of the industry’s appeal. It’s a subculture that makes attorneys very nervous.

“They shouldn’t be drinking at all when at work or working. Off work, it’s tough,” said Aaron Colby of law firm Davis Wright Tremaine.  

“You want camaraderie, and workers will go to the bar and start drinking, but the manager is still the manager. It’s difficult for an employer to argue that anything that happens was outside the scope of employment.”

Kim Lee-Charlson, executive director of the association Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, points to a certain male-dominated culture, but also that tradition of hanging out after hours.

“We know the restaurant industry is not the only one, but it does tend to be male power heavy. And there’s also a culture of hanging out after hours, and there’s a lot that happens, distasteful comments, suggestions, moves. It’s pretty rampant,” she said.

“It’s a mental health issue, it really is,” she said. “It’s a challenging environment. There are a lot of demands, physically and otherwise, for people who want to be in the industry.”


Kim Bartmann, president of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs and whose Bartmann Group in Minneapolis operates eight concepts, agreed, arguing that sexual harassment is a symptom of a larger problem in the industry: lack of basic civility.

“It’s not okay for any chef to be working on their feet 70 hours a week, but it’s very common. There’s a national discussion about chefs and health and how we can rethink our entire profession to have more work-life balance, and it’s not just women, that’s everyone,” said Bartmann.

 “I think it’s good that the discussion is more out in the open and hopefully people will just become more conscious of how everyone treats each other,” she added. “Hopefully we’ll all become more respectful of all of our differences and commonalities.”

In fact, the EEOC also sees incivility as a fundamental problem that has fueled a certain tolerance of harassment in the workplace.

Earlier this year, the agency updated its training program for employers to prevent all kinds of workplace harassment, including sexual harassment.

Rather than the traditional focus on compliance and meeting legal definitions and standards for liability, the new program attempts to help employers foster a “respectful workplace.”

“A strong training program is a critical piece of a holistic harassment prevention effort,” said Chai Feldblum, EEOC Commissioner, in a statement. “We know that workplace incivility often acts as a ‘gateway drug’ to workplace harassment.”

The new training program aims to provide specific skills for acting respectfully in the workplace and for employers to intervene when they observe disrespectful or abusive behavior.

“In short, the program is designed to stop improper behavior before it ever rises to the level of illegal harassment,” Feldblum said.

The move follows a 2016 report on harassment overall that found that much of the training done over the past 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool because of the focus on avoiding liability, the EEOC report said.

Training should be tailored to a specific workplace, and should be part of a holistic culture of non-harassment, the report argued. And it should focus on promoting respect and civility more broadly, not just eliminating offensive behavior based on non-discrimination laws. 


Meanwhile, in New Orleans — which has become ground zero in the conversation about sexual harassment in restaurants, thanks to Besh — Richter of Turkey and the Wolf and others in the industry are working on developing new training programs to prevent harassment.

Richter launched a group called Medusa to advocate for restaurant worker protections. The group is also working with Tulane University to develop training methods for employers and support programs for workers who have faced abuse.

“There isn’t a lot of training going on, especially with small and independently run restaurants. They’re making up HR policies off the cuff,” said Richter.

Joining with Medusa is another group called Proof Positive Project founded by Mark Schettler of Bar Tonique, which has similar goals.

What’s different now from Anita Hill’s day is that the code of silence that has long prevented the harassed from speaking out has now been broken, said Schettler.

“You can’t slut shame your way out of this, like we did with Anita Hill,” he said.

“This time around, you’ve got politicians on both sides of the aisle, and star chefs that have had to deal with it, and people at the top of every food chain,” he continued. “We’ve had this reckoning. There’s no way to turn away anymore. Who can say this is not an issue we have?”

Still, when asked whether he believed things will change, Schettler responded with qualified skepticism.

“That’s up to the people who read this,” said Schettler. “At the core of our industry is taking care of people. But you have to ask yourself, do you actually care about that, or are you full of shit?”

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected] 

Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

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