I’ve had a couple of run-ins with what you might call harassment – two weeks ago, a patron told me he wanted to have my, uh, manhood in his mouth, and then went into other details I’d rather not elaborate on without a few beers. But by and large, I’m rarely subjected to it even though I spend a lot of time in my own bar. Why? Well, for one, I identify as a straight, white male. For another, I’m one of the owners, and harassment often seems to occur when patrons expect servitude from their servers. Most of my familiarity with harassment comes from incidents the staff report to me, and typically those incidents only get reported when I extract them.
It hurts to think that a business I helped to open could foster an environment conducive to harassment. It hurts to think that our staff – our family – deal with harassment on a regular basis. I am dating one of our staff, and it makes me furious to hear what they occasionally have to deal with as a server. And yet, in the hospitality industry, this seems to be the norm. Workplace BC indicates hospitality is the industry with the highest proportion of bullying and harassment complaints, with most of the complaints being against management. Restaurant Opportunities Centers United confirms these findings with at least 90% of women working in tipped restaurant positions dealing with harassment in some form, and at least two-thirds of female workers and over half of male workers experiencing some form of sexual harassment from management. The latter part of both studies is troubling: the root of the problem stems from the top down.
Dani, who is a bartender here on the weekends and a psychologist during the week, elaborated on the “bartender effect” from the popular show How I Met Your Mother: people (mainly women) in service industry professions such as bartending are perceived as more attractive because they are in that profession. The reality is not far off – it is symptomatic of how highly sexualized the service industry is. This is clearly evidenced in many restaurants and bars which encourage or insist their staff look or present themselves a certain way for the benefit and pleasure of the patrons. Likewise, the ‘customer is always right’ motto being prevalent in the industry produces a feeling of having to tolerate sexual harassment and unwanted advances because it is “just part of the job.” It also reinforces a clear power imbalance between patron and server that already exists since the server cannot remove themselves from the reality of job security, tips, management, etc. This has a cyclical impact on the sexualization of the service industry.
Dani also noted that the sexualization of the service industry fosters social distancing, or an ‘othering’ of service industry professionals, meaning bartenders, servers, etc., are perceived as somehow different from everyone else. This produces a feeling of distance between the harasser and their harassee, almost as though the harassee is not a regular person you met through friends, or at work, etc. This results in frequently heard comments like “she can take it”, or “she’s used to it”, or ‘I didn’t mean anything by it’, thereby excusing culpability or responsibility with the justification that a service interaction is not the same as any other, and therefore doesn’t have to follow conventional social rules. This is how an otherwise nice person can act like a shithead towards their server.
About a year ago, I remember hearing about harassment at our workplace for the first time. Our bartender Jill, who enjoys wearing crop-tops, received frequent unwanted feedback from patrons of all genders who either accosted her for promoting patriarchy, belittled her for dressing scantily, took her choice of clothing as an opportunity to hit on her aggressively, or attempted to defend her against Good Robot’s sexist dress codes. I had a hard time believing that someone as kind and giving as Jill could be treated so poorly, especially by patrons of my business. Since then, I’ve realized two things:
Here are a few incidents – some recurring – over the past couple of months that staff have dealt with:
We recently held a staff meeting to discuss how we could change this culture. Our staff chimed in with specific incidents and how they were dealt with effectively. Ultimately, each incident and its consequence were unique, so it’s difficult to address a complex problem with a simple solution. We thought it might help to share some incidents and how they were dealt with effectively for all those in the industry who deal with this bullshit on the regular:
Going back to a stat from earlier in this article, most harassment occurs from top-down. Most hospitality business owners – hell, most hospitality business management – I know are great people. I like to think that they would be disappointed to know what happens to their staff in a day. So, here are three things owners and managers can do to help eliminate systematic harassment in hospitality:
Harassment is a topic that cannot be resolved in one article. Likewise, I largely focused herein on sexual harassment as applied to non-male staff. Harassment and discrimination take many forms against many people. The Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission has an excellent write-up on the matter. This is just a starting point to hopefully encourage some discussion. Or it might go completely unnoticed. Either way, I want my family to know they don’t have to tolerate harassment.
Annoy your friends!