It’s a hot-button issue. There is no question that the restaurant industry has a harassment problem. According to Equal Employment Opportunity Center data crunched by Buzzfeed last year, full-service restaurant industry workers reported far and away the most incidences of sexual harassment between 1995 and 2006.
“It’s a big problem in the hospitality industry,” says David B. Jordan, a Houston-based attorney and co-chair of the Hospitality Industry Group at Littler Mendelson, the world’s largest labor and employment law firm representing management. “We are dealing many times with workers who are younger, they have more engaging social interactions, and management many times tends to be younger so it is an environment that is rich with problems and opportunities as it relates to harassment and discrimination.”
Restaurant industry harassment is one of the reasons cited in the movement to eliminate the tipped minimum wage, saying that tipping normalizes bad behavior. But experts and industry workers say it’s not that simple.
“Anytime someone says a tipping model causes sexual harassment is taking away blame from the harasser and putting it back on the victim and in this situation other parties (the restaurant),” restaurant owner Stacey Carr says in an email to Restaurant Insider. “In my 18 years in the business, I have never been sexually harassed, and had I been, I have zero doubt my managers would have handled the situation accordingly.”
Carr may be one of the lucky ones. An article published in the Harvard Business Review, notes that over a three-month period, some 75 percent of female college students working in food and beverage service jobs participating in a study exploring sexual harassment at restaurants reported at least one incidence of harassment.
“Every woman I know has been harassed at work,” both tipped and untipped, says Stefanie K. Johnson, one of the authors of the Harvard Business Review article and an associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business. An earlier study by Johnson that explored the experiences of attractive white-collar women in the workplace, found that harassment was one of the realities of being a woman in the workplace. “These were all top-level women, and it was so rampant that it blew me away,” Johnson recalls.
“Harassment is pervasive,” agrees Dianne Avery, a retired professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law and author on discrimination and harassment issues. “It’s in boardrooms and law offices; non-tipped workers in factories and mines face it as well.”
“Anytime someone says a tipping model causes sexual harassment is taking away blame from the harasser and putting it back on the victim.” – Restaurant owner Stacey Carr
That said, a connection between tipping and harassment may well have a basis in history, Avery says, noting that in the early 20th century, when women first started working in the restaurant industry, many were thought to be “loose” because at the end of the exchange, they were being given money. These days, however, the custom is so entrenched it’s just part of the dining out routine. “You don’t even think, for the most part, whether the service was good or not,” Avery says. “It’s just automatic.”
While that may be so for the majority of tipping interactions, where it becomes problematic is when a server is faced with bad behavior. The Harvard Business Review study found that, “Despite feeling uncomfortable and threatened, servers saw [harassment] as part of the job and rarely complained to their managers. Many mentioned failing to complain or report the harassment because of fear of retaliation. In fact, the more sexual harassment they experienced, the more they reported fear of retaliation.”
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So the problem may not be so much the tipping, as the environment that keeps women from reporting negative interactions, and uncertainty about what can be done.
“I don’t think it causes customers to harass more but it facilitates the server’s dependence on pleasing the customer,” Avery explains. “A server may feel like she has to put up with a crude comment in order to get that tip.”
While there may be some merit to that, with women disproportionately working in tipped roles, eliminating tipping will disproportionately affect women’s income, says Dawn Lafreeda, who owns 81 Denny’s restaurants across the South and Midwest.
“Bad behavior is an occasional problem in any industry, but blaming the tipping system insults millions of women who benefit from it,” writes Lafreeda in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. “I’m…concerned that an idea based on such scant evidence could ruin countless servers’ income opportunities.”
Indeed, most evidence surrounding the issue is anecdotal. In looking at EEOC data, California, which has no tipped minimum wage, has more reported cases of harassment than New York, which currently has a tipped minimum.
“I definitely do not see any systemic connection between tipping and harassment,” says Littler Mendelson’s Jordan, whose firm handles a lot of sexual harassment cases for the industry. “I think that is a circumstance that exists without tipping. If we believe, for example, ‘boys will be boys,’ that isn’t going to change whether or not there is a tip being left.”
While there may not be a direct connection, making it clear that harassment has no place in any restaurant is an important step in protecting servers from bad behavior. Johnson suggests increasing bystander training, explaining that many victims of harassment feel isolated and alone and perhaps at the mercy of a “the customer is always right” mentality, but if a coworker calls it out, it makes it easier. “It adds strength in numbers and makes everyone accountable for ensuring that harassment doesn’t occur,” Johnson says.
“We need to solve the underlying problem, which is not tolerating behavior like that,” agrees Jordan. “ It is a situation that operators need to continually address and to train for. I encourage operators to spend a fair amount of time on training how to deal with harassment not just in the workforce but from customers and vendors as well.”
Or as Carr puts it, “I would never allow that to happen to any of my employees and if someone is working at a place that allows that, please let them know one thing…I’m always looking for great people.”