Katy Scott

It's time to put an end to sexual harassment in hospitality

Since the day I turned eighteen, I’ve worked in customer service. I’ve witnessed genuinely frightening tempers in customers and a stunning lack of empathy displayed by some patrons. It’s bizarre how donning an apron or shirt can suddenly make someone more susceptible to abuse or, more specifically, sexual harassment.

I’ve noticed that instances of sexual harassment have occured far more often in the restaurants I’ve worked in than anywhere else. Interaction with customers is more important than in a fast food chain or supermarket, and you’re often tipped for this extra attentiveness. However, for some reason many customers often deliberately misconstrue this. The pathetic story of a man mistaking a waitress doing her job as flirting is almost cliche now, but it holds true. Pair that with with four, five, six pints, and the situation can become dangerous.

A 2016 survey by Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that 67% of women who work in hospitality and leisure have experienced some form of sexual harassment, compared to the workplace average of 52%. 79% of women in hospitality who have been harassed did not report the incident.

I had been waitressing for about two months when a customer groped me. I remember feeling rage and embarrassment boiling up as I faced a crowd of men. It was - unsurprisingly - a bachelor party and there were about 15 of them blocking my way to the kitchen. I wanted to yell and swear at them for touching me, but I managed to stay calm and told them that they’d be asked to leave if they acted like that again. I immediately reported the incident to my manager, who laughed. The second time it happened, it was one of the boss’s pals. I didn’t bother reporting it.

This, perhaps wisely, drove me to fear and avoid groups of men gradually getting drunker in my workplace. Working around drunk people can be annoying, but in a dark restaurant where your job is to keep everyone happy, it’s just scary. It sucks when you don’t feel safe in your workplace and that no one would care if it happened again. Being taught to laugh such instances off is damaging, and a terrible way to treat staff. I don’t deny that a thick skin is required to work in customer service, but sexual harassment cannot and should not be brushed off. I don’t doubt that this happens in many other restaurants around Glasgow, and across the UK. It really saddens me that a zero tolerance on sexual harassment policy isn’t as commonplace as hand washing policies and allergy training. All equally contribute to the health and well-being of people in the bar or restaurant, and would facilitate a stronger culture of respect and responsibility in such places. But maybe bosses aren’t keen on that.

Waiting staff are often paid the bare minimum and are expected to work upwards of 12 hours at a time. I’ve worked in places that didn’t give staff breaks or food. Staff well-being is often completely disregarded in hospitality in the name of profit, especially in independent restaurants who usually won’t have an HR representative that you can speak to. Waiters and waitresses are often disrespected, as many people see their employment as an absolute last resort or a student job, and not a genuine career. Due to the job’s key aspect of serving customers, they often think they own you.

Reviews help businesses thrive. Restaurants will often comp drinks, starters, mains, anything if a customer is less than satisfied with their meal. Staff are trained to be as attentive and informed as possible. Everything revolves around the customer’s experience, obviously. But what happens when they turn abusive? I’ve seen customers chucked out for threatening or attacking staff, but why is there a free pass on sexual harassment? Staff are told to just deal with such behaviour to keep the harasser from leaving a bad review or complaining. It's upsetting, but not surprising. What’s worse - someone leaving a bad review and damaging your Trip Advisor rating, or a staff member quitting over sexual harassment? Clue: waiting staff are easy to replace.

Women are not the sole sufferers of this harassment. I’ve worked with men who have complained to me about female customers thinking that they want to be touched or spoken to inappropriately. Due to the macho culture in these places, and the idea that men should be “grateful” for female attention, they can feel even less comfortable making a complaint.

The TUC survey, “Still just a bit of banter?”, suggested women often feel uncomfortable reporting or refuting harassment as they “find their experiences are minimised by colleagues or others” and they would be seen as humourless. Four in five women did not report the sexual harassment to their employer. Of those that did report the incident, a majority were unhappy with the outcome, with 16% actually being treated worse upon reporting the ordeal. TUC suggests that the “casualization of women” as zero-hours or fixed-term workers often dissuades them from reporting harassment, as they depend on their employer liking them and therefore giving them enough shifts every week to survive. To amend these disturbing statistics, TUC recommends the “implementation and enforcement of clear policies”, namely a “duty on employers to act where an employee is being harassed by a third party [...] Employers should have a clear zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment and policies which reflect that.” It also advises employers to hire staff on permanent, secure contracts, so that they are not worried about losing or harming their income upon reporting sexual harassment.

Adopting a zero tolerance policy on such behaviour may encourage both men and women to actually come forward and report these instances. Why bother reporting something so upsetting and embarrassing if it will just procure a laugh and a “lucky you”? Knowing that these situations will be taken seriously will enable staff to feel safer and more valued in the workplace, and will lead to a better experience for everyone.

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