Empty commercial kitchen in restaurant

Toronto-based restaurateur Jen Agg didn’t need published reports about veteran restaurateur John Besh’s alleged hostile work environment to know that the restaurant industry is rife with incidents of sexual harassment.

Agg, author of I Hear She’s a Real Bitch, a memoir which has earned accolades from industry leaders like Anthony Bourdain, recently penned a piece for the New Yorker outlining what a male-dominated industry can mean for women’s experience and success.

She continued sharing her thoughts with Restaurant Insider, describing how the structure of restaurants can contribute to a toxicity that the Restaurant Opportunities Center United has found to attribute to the fact that a two-thirds of female restaurant workers surveyed in 2014 had reported being sexually harassed, while one-third reported routine unwanted touching.

“Everything in the social construct of restaurants is designed for the comfort of men, which means even if you’re not being physically or sexually harassed, there’s a good chance you’ll have to laugh along with rape jokes or be seen as ‘uptight,’” said Agg, who helms Toronto’s Black Hoof and Grey Gardens and Montreal’s Agrikol. “There are so many threads to pull, it’s hard to know where to start, but the baseline is certainly the toxic masculinity that has long been a staple of restaurants in general, and kitchens in particular. The environment can, in some cases, be as brutal as outright sexual assault and harassment: unwanted touching…bra straps snapped and a litany of other gross things.”

Restaurant Chef Jen Agg
Restaurateur Jen Agg

And since there are few women in leadership positions across the entire industry, Agg said, “The pirate ship nature of kitchens and militaristic hierarchy, plus late nights spent bonding over the last of the Coors Light, contributes to blurry lines and a permissive atmosphere that feels really fun until it goes too far.”

Data compiled by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission at the request of Restaurant Insider found that 6.1 percent of all sexual harassment charges reported in 2016 were by workers in the restaurant industry.

That’s up from the previous year when it represented a total of 5.6 percent of all submitted cases, but a decline from 6.3 percent in 2014 and 7.5 percent in 2013. But that doesn’t mean the problem is going away.

Though the EEOC declined to speculate on what caused a decrease in reported incidents, EEOC senior attorney advisor Lisa Schnall outlined the specific ways that restaurant workers may be more prone to dealing with sexual harassment than in other industries. Mainly, she said, it comes down to tipping, alcohol and high turnover rates.

“Workplaces where an employee’s compensation may be directly tied to customer satisfaction or client service certainly can be a risk factor for harassment,” said Schnall, citing the EEOC’s co-chair report from the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, which identifies 12 risk factors for harassment. “It really seems that there are two issues there: first of all, the fact that employees rely on customer satisfaction for pay, and then, secondly, the fact that there is a customer-is-always-right mentality … As a result, employees may be more reluctant to report harassment by customers.”

Schnall said that line of thinking can extend to managers, who might be reluctant to call out bad behavior for fear of retaliation, like posting an unfavorable online review.

Craft beer. A half-drunk glass of beer at the table restaurant

“The money issue can be quite daunting,” she said, as can be the presence of alcohol in the workplace. “Workplaces, where alcohol is consumed by clients or customers, are at a higher risk of harassment. Of course, that’s because alcohol can reduce social inhibition and impair judgment.”

And then there’s the issue of training in an industry with a high turnover rate, she said.

“Are new employees trained right away about the harassment policy and complaint procedure? Are all employees trained on a regular basis?” Schnall asked. “Also, it’s an industry that seems to have a lot of temporary workers or part-time workers or young workers or all of the above … They may incorrectly assume that the workplace harassment laws don’t apply to that, and that’s simply not true.”

Schnall recommended that all employees and managers get on the same page when it comes to identifying and reporting harassment through a clear and thorough training program, complete with restaurant-specific examples and terminology. A detailed policy outline should also be included in an employee handbook, she said, which should include a number of reporting options should the employee feel uncomfortable speaking directly to the manager.

‘Everything in the social construct of restaurants is designed for the comfort of men.’ – Jen Agg

“That’s sending the message, ‘This is a priority for us. Harassment is inconsistent with our values and our culture, and harassment is prohibited and won’t be tolerated,’” she said. “That’s critically important to have that message coming from the top of the organization.”

Because, Schnall said, at the end of the day, both employees and managers should be on alert for harassment, but, legally, managers are responsible for handling complaints and taking action.

“Of course, the restaurant isn’t going to want the manager to cause a scene, but at the same time, the manager and the restaurant has a legal responsibility to put a stop to harassment that it is aware of,” she explained. “The manager could go over and say something to that customer [like], ‘Your conduct is really unacceptable and I need you to stop and if you’re not going to stop, I’m going to ask you to leave.’ But, certainly, it doesn’t need to be forceful. It doesn’t need to be loud or disruptive to other patrons … Now, if it’s something the restaurant considers more serious, then that might result not just in a warning, but in simply telling the customer, ‘Here’s your bill. You need to pay, and please don’t come back.’”

For Agg, clear harassment policies are upheld in each of her restaurants, and she takes action when employees come forward with a complaint.

Chefs busy at work in professional restaurant kitchen

“We talk openly with staff, and every new hire knows they can go to a manager or directly to me with any issues,” Agg said. “I was grateful two years ago when a server came to me to report that a cook had shown her a [photograph of his genitals]. He was immediately fired.”

Agg said that any changes to the industry as a whole to combat these types of issues starts with simply acknowledging the problem, something she has called out chefs and industry leaders for keeping quiet on.

“Men need to start [caring] about harassment and misogyny, and not just because they produced a daughter, and women (especially privileged women) need to stop tacitly supporting a broken system,” Agg said. “For tough guys, they sure are acting like a bunch of cowards, especially in the wake of the Besh allegations. There’s a willful ignorance, ostrich-ing happening. It’s embarrassing.”

Resources for your restaurant

In addition to its task force report, the EEOC provides several resources for businesses and employees to find help with harassment reporting and training.

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Meghan is an award-winning journalist and content marketing manager who lives to tell stories. Her favorites include highlighting all things restaurants, from front-of-house hospitality to back-of-house grit. When she's not writing about them, you can find her eating her way through Providence and Boston searching for inspiration with a rye Old Fashioned in hand.