Restaurant Impossible? Eliminating Sexual Harassment in Eateries

Sexual harassment seems to have the best table in the house in the restaurant industry.

It’s everywhere — “a normalized” part of the working environment — according to a recent report called “The Glass Floor” from the advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.

According to the report, of the more than 5,000 people surveyed who work in the industry, 66 percent have experienced some level of harassing behavior from management, 78 percent from customers and 80 percent from co-workers.

Women are more likely to experience sexual harassment in restaurants, and women who work in states where the tipped minimum wage is $2.13 an hour are twice as likely to be sexually harassed as those women who work in states that pay full minimum wage. While 7 percent of U.S. women work in the restaurant industry, according to the report, 37 percent of all U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claims come from the restaurant industry.

Men making the tipped minimum wage also reported higher incidents of sexual harassment.

These stats don’t surprise me.

After graduating college, I took an internship that I absolutely despised, so I quit.

I ended up taking a job as a waiter until I could find work in journalism. The position paid a lot better than the internship, but that was because of the tips, not the puny salary of a couple of bucks an hour. As an introvert in a profession where extroverts thrive, I almost had to put on an outgoing, friendly act to win over the guests. Being gregarious led to better gratuities. It wasn’t me, but it helped me make money.   

Of course, I couldn’t win everyone over. There was the couple that ordered everything piecemeal, constantly summoning me to their table to get them food, drinks, extra napkins or what have you, which was annoying but didn’t bother me too much until they left and I found a handful of pennies scattered in the ashtray. My tip. Another customer chastised me for not putting his piece of pie down in front of him with the sharp edge pointing to either “5 o’clock or 7 o’clock.” At that point I definitely knew my time as a waiter was ticking.

There were also customers who took that friendliness the wrong way. A number of men in particular invited me out for drinks, asked me for my phone number, gave me their business cards, etc. One much-older guy all but begged me to “party” with him after work; it was his birthday after all. Another tested the waters by bringing in two pinup calendars, one of all men and one of all women, to see which one interested me.

Had I complained, I do believe the management team would have had my back, but the thought of pointing out customer behavior never really occurred to me. It just came with the territory, I thought.

It’s up to managers to help provide a safe working environment regardless of the industry, but especially in a field where tips are on the line and alcohol is going down the gullets. The report recommends taking measures to establish a strict anti-harassment policy, emphasizing no tolerance for sexual harassment and not making workers wear sexually suggestive uniforms.

Now I’m not naïve to think sexual harassment can be completely eradicated from the restaurant industry, a field that has previously referred to women as “serving wenches” going back to at least the 17th and 18th centuries, but it is time for a new “normal.” Some establishments would probably go out of business on the quality of food alone, but that doesn’t mean management should turn a blind eye to harassment either, especially if they see or hear about it coming from co-workers.

That’s just good service.

This article originally appeared in Diversity Executive's sister publication, Workforce.