More sexual harassment claims are filed in the restaurant industry than in any other. Up to 90 percent of women and 70 percent of men in the industry report experiencing sexual harassment, according to Sexual Harassment Is Pervasive in the Restaurant Industry. Here’s What Needs to Change, a 2018 article in the Harvard Business Review by Stefanie K. Johnson and Juan M. Madera. With a reputation for crude “kitchen talk” coupled with “the customer is always right” mentality, the restaurant industry is rife with risk factors that make it particularly susceptible to workplace misconduct. 

How can industry employers identify and mitigate the risk factors related to harassment? To help you get started, we will discuss some of the harassment risks common in the restaurant industry and provide some compliance-based principles towards mitigating these risks.

Responsible businesses prioritize the safety and welfare of their employees. Preventing harassment and other toxic behaviors helps further that mission. A 2022 article in the Villanova Law Review by Susan R. Fiorentino and Sandra M. Tomkowicz, reports that victims of harassment and toxic workplace conduct experience increased stress and anxiety, and exhibit burnout, distraction, and disengagement. Such conditions negatively impact performance, overall productivity, and customer service, contribute to turnover, and present challenges to retention and recruitment.

In addition to harming employees, harassment and other toxic behaviors are costly to companies, financially and reputationally. Media reports show that harassment allegations can tarnish a brand image overnight. The Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund’s 2019 Annual Report found that most Americans now recognize harassment as a serious issue, and consumers are increasingly attuned to brands with reputations as bad actors. Building brand loyalty from the inside by developing a workplace culture that does not tolerate any form of incivility, even behavior that may not be actionable harassment, can improve employee performance, reduce turnover, and minimize the risk of public blackeyes.

So what is the first step? Understanding an organization’s specific risk profile. An effective compliance program must be tailored to an organization’s specific operations and risks, including often overlooked risks such as harassment.

Risk Factors for Workplace Harassment and Misconduct in the Restaurant Industry 

Restaurants display key markers of a high-risk environment for harassment as identified by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace (  

Decentralization: Misconduct often occurs in restaurants, franchises, or kitchens, which are usually off-site or removed from corporate offices. This structure can limit the oversight and support needed to enforce corporate values and workplace conduct policies, and employees may feel that they have no recourse for raising concerns.

Customer-Service Mentality: “The customer is always right” mantra prevails and can lead employees and management to tolerate inappropriate behavior from patrons. Managers often perceive harassment from customers as less egregious, and employees may feel that pushing back on or reporting customer misconduct will be perceived as a lack of commitment to customer-service.

Youth, Power, and Gender Dynamics: Across the restaurant industry, men hold the majority of management positions while women, especially minority women, hold jobs with lower status and lower pay, according to the 2018 Harvard Business Review article about harassment in the industry. Gendered power disparities can create a “boy’s club” or “locker-room talk” environment making female employees, particularly those earning low wages, feel unempowered to speak up. Youth and inexperience (common characteristics of front-line workers) can exacerbate those power imbalances.     

High Turnover: With turnover high in the industry, workers may leave before filing complaints. Where front-line jobs are seen as fungible, employees may quit rather than complain. This leaves management unaware of the problem and unable to discipline wrongdoers. 

These risks factors are only a few examples. Focused risk assessments and workplace surveys can help fully define an organization’s risk profile.

Compliance-based Lessons for an Ethical Culture

Once an organization has defined its risk profile, it can work to manage those risks through compliance-based efforts, such as: 

Establishing and communicating leadership’s commitment to address toxic behaviors and cascading that commitment throughout the organization. Decentralized operations require greater effort by leadership to drive values and culture. This requires unwavering leadership and uncompromising accountability. Leadership must be intentional in demonstrating a commitment to a diverse, respectful, and inclusive workplace and rooting out toxic conduct. 

Establishing and implementing clear and comprehensive policies and procedures. Companies must develop and implement policies that prohibit toxic conduct and memorialize clear standards of behavior for employees and customers. 

Promote a speak-up culture. Employers must educate employees on their obligation to report workplace misconduct and should provide employees with multiple avenues for reporting concerns. To be effective, employers must also provide meaningful assurance that employees who complain or participate in investigations will not face retaliation. 

Training employees and communicating lessons from trainings and policies often. In an environment with heightened risk profiles, standardized annual training may be insufficient. Policies and expectations of behavior must be communicated frequently. Companies should consider trainings focused on addressing their most significant risks. Companies should provide front-line managers and supervisors additional training regarding their responsibilities to ensure adherence to policies and to respond effectively upon receipt of reports from employees. 

Though the restaurant industry shares common risk factors for workplace misconduct, every company faces unique risks and challenges. Work with a compliance expert to develop a plan tailored to evaluate your risk profile and develop an effective compliance program to protect your employees.

Note: This is part one in a two-part series.

Alejandra Montenegro Almonte, Ann Sultan, and Nicole Gokcebay work with Miller & Chevalier’s Workplace Culture and Conduct practice. The authors acknowledge the contributions of Elissa Harwood, Summer Associate at Miller & Chevalier.

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