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How Can the Restaurant Industry Fix Its Massive Sexual Harassment Problem?

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80 percent of female restaurant workers have experienced sexual harassment

Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC) just dropped a bombshell report (PDF) that called sexual harassment "endemic to the restaurant industry." Just under 70 percent of female restaurant workers and some 50 percent of male employees say they "experienced some form of sexual harassment" from managers, while a jaw-dropping 80 percent of female restaurant workers have reportedly experienced sexual harassment from customers.

Eater spoke with Teo Reyes, the National Research Director at ROC, to learn more about what's happening with these staggering statistics and what steps restaurants can take to improve. The ROC report urges lawmakers to support legislative initiatives like One Fair Wage, the Fair Scheduling Act, and the Fair Employment Protection Act. But restaurants can make a difference too. From having on-the-job worker advocates to different wage structures, Reyes makes it clear that these statistics can be changed. He says: "Owners and management need to step up to the plate."

What was your role in this study?
I'm the National Research Director at ROC so I oversaw the entire report from start to finish ... It was a collaborative effort with a lot of organizations and scholars so I don't want to take sole credit but I oversaw the survey process and the survey development ensuring the methodology was sound and all of that.

The report is pretty damning. Were you surprised by the findings?
Yes. We knew we were going to find a problem. There's this: We've been surveying restaurant workers around the country for over 10 years now and whenever we've asked them directly, "Have you experienced sexual harassment?" and we would get about a 10 percent rate to suggest they had experienced sexual harassment that had somehow impacted them on their job.

Then we added some more questions, made it a little more in-depth, and 32 percent responded that they had experienced sexual harassment. And we know from the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commissions) that out of all the sexual harassment claims that they received from women, over 30 percent come from the restaurant industry alone. We knew that there was under-reporting going on.

So we created the survey tool where we didn't ask people, "Hey, have you experienced sexual harassment?" We asked them about a whole bunch of behaviors. Have you had a coworker, manager or customer that sexted you? Have they come up and shown you dirty pictures? Have you been where someone tries to kiss you or pinch you, etc.

As a result of that we found that a very high majority of women and also a large percentage of men had experienced these behaviors. When we asked them if they were bothered by them or upset by them, if they sometimes made the workplace scary or uncomfortable, they responded yes and that's a textbook definition of sexual harassment.

We did expect to find high numbers. I don't know that we expected them to be as high as we did find them.

I was surprised by the high number of men reporting sexual harassment.
Yeah. When we looked at the difference in what it is that the men were complaining about, the areas where they were really being affected was in comments around their sexual orientation, for example. Although they were also experiencing a lot of the other behaviors like [being] told to flirt with customers and [being] told to act in particular ways, but the place where they really stood out was in that area.

Was there a clear type of harassment women were most experiencing?
Yes ... One of the things we found out [is] that this is being heavily driven by the tipped minimum wage system.

What we found for tipped women was the area where they were really being harassed was in being told to wear sexier, more revealing clothing; even more revealing than what their uniform is. Also being told to flirt with customers. But overall it does vary by whether you're talking about customers or whether you're talking about management or talking about co-workers.

Women receive a much higher rate of sexual teasing, sexual jokes. They get pressured for dates a lot more.

Women receive a much higher rate of sexual teasing, sexual jokes. They get pressured for dates a lot more. They get a lot of sexual suggesting looks. A third of women, for example, reported they've been deliberately touched inappropriately by a co-worker and that compares to 20 percent of men.

...From customers the areas where women really faced the highest rates had to with pressure for dates as well, but also they were showed media, which was interesting. So in general they were getting texts, sexts, from customers at a higher rate and are being showed media, texts, phone calls, letters. They were getting that at a higher rate. However I want to point that it's a higher ... So we made a statistical analysis so the rates, for example, only 10 percent of women said that they were getting letters, phone calls, or materials of sexual nature. But that's a very powerful finding because it's statistically significant. I mean you can take that as you will. It means that the probability that women are affected by it is not due to chance...

Photo: Shutterstock

The report ties rates of sexual harassment to whether tipped workers are making the sub-minimum wage or not. Can you explain a little bit more about that connection?

Servers were uncomfortable reporting sexual harassment from customers and decided to go along with it because they didn't want to lose that tip.

Your entire wage comes from how your customers are evaluating and so this means you're willing to put up with a lot more because it's your wage. You're not going to be able to pay your bills if you upset a customer and as a result they short-change on the tip. In the focus groups, workers talked about this, about how they were uncomfortable [and] really scared to report sexual harassment from customers and really decided to go along with it because they didn't want to lose that tip.

Along with that we found that rates of sexual harassment are higher for everybody, not just tipped workers, in those areas [where tipped employees earn the tipped minimum wage]. So part of it is managers are more likely to engage in sexual harassment in these areas as well, and I think that creates an environment where co-workers see that it's okay or there's more leniency in the way co-workers interact with each other.

Part of it I think does have to do with the fact that the tipped worker, a server or waitress, is going to interact differently with a customer when they know that their income comes solely from tips. I think in states where you don't have that sub-minimum wage, there's eight states where tipped workers don't get a lower wage, I think there they're more likely to say certain behaviors are just not acceptable and then you just stop it at the start and then it's less likely to occur.

So that was one of your policy suggestion at the end of the report: the One Fair Wage, a system in which tipped employees earn at least the regular minimum wage.

Photo: Shutterstock

The report also found that much of the harassment was coming from co-workers as opposed to managers. What can a restaurant can do to stop this culture of harassment?
Actually one of the ideas that came out of the focus groups with workers themselves was to have an advocate on the job; someone who could stand up for an individual or someone that you could go to and say, "Hey I'm being harassed. I'm experiencing these problems." To make sure that the sexual harassment policies were being enforced and communicated because a lot of restaurants have harassment policies but they just don't get applied. That's what we found. They just don't get applied. A lot of people said, "Oh yeah that's in the handbook" or "That was mentioned once in orientation" but after that it's like it doesn't really exist.

For example, whoever the woman in the place that has the highest seniority could be the person charged with being an advocate for co-workers.

We also need to figure out how to strengthen our reporting of laws and ensure that these type of violations aren't allowed to occur. One of the things workers mentioned is that they would be much more comfortable talking about this with their supervisors if they were part of a group of co-workers. So if it wasn't just them on their own. As a worker center and an advocacy center for restaurant workers, that's one of the things we try to accomplish: to bring workers together to share their grievances as well.

What can restaurants do to handle customer harassment better?
I think they need to have a very clear policy on it and they need to apply it... This really falls, on the one hand, looking at the system itself so that workers themselves feel like "hey I can stand up for myself."

Owners and management need to step up to the plate. When a worker comes and says, "oh this guy is harassing me, he's touching me, he won't stop bothering me" Instead of saying, "oh, boys will be boys" or "oh just smile and get over it." Instead of taking that approach they should take it seriously and say, "Yeah, this is a profession. These are professionals here who are trying to provide you with great service and great food and they need to be treated appropriately."

Another thing is we need to look at uniform policies. One of the things we found [is] that in places where women are required to wear more suggestive uniforms they did experience more harassment. You know, in some places men are told to wear slacks and button down shirts and the women are told to wear short skirts and tank tops.

What other solutions are there?
We outline solutions at the end of the report. Some of them, for example, are looking at same thing. Employment laws, sexual harassment employment laws but also support for the Fair Scheduling Act so that workers don't feel like they might lose a valuable shift if they complain about being harassed by a manager .... They might get retaliated against, they might be given a bad shift. In which case they'll make a lot less money.

The Fair Employment Protection Act also looks at protection from lower level supervisors which is really common here. That's another thing, is that workers are much more... When harassment is coming from a peer they feel it different than when it's coming from a customer. With a customer they really have to put up with it; with a co-worker they don't necessarily experience it the same. Although there are some cases of serious abuse from co-workers as well. But when you have individuals who are low-level supervisors I think it gets really blurry there and that's something where a restaurant worker would feel like they were in a real bind if their immediate supervisor who was also helping serve and whatnot is harassing them. What is the appropriate response?

Maybe implementing zero tolerance policies?
The first step is educating workers about the issue.That's one of the things that workers talked about specifically was to look at a work culture based on zero tolerance. I think that's really, I think that's something to work towards but when you have, it's so generalized. The first step is really educating workers about the issue. Like when you ask them about these types of behaviors workers will say, "Oh, it's kitchen talk. It's the way it is. It's what you got to endure to earn your tip." So I think the first part is really, an important first step is educating people about what constitutes sexual harassment and that they have a right to say is unacceptable behavior.

What types of restaurants were the workers surveyed working at? The report says "family-style." Does that mean big chains like Applebee's or independently owned restaurants?
The majority of workers came from casual full-service which is like Applebee's. It's like Denny's but also independent restaurants where you would not expect to put down more than $40 per plate.

So I think it's an open question whether you see this same type of harassment in high-end fine dining. We know there is harassment because we have talked to workers who have experienced it and who have experienced some pretty horrendous instances of harassment. But on the other hand, [in] fine-dining they are more likely to have appropriate uniforms where you are not really sexualizing the waitstaff.

Is there anything else you want to add?
We started talking in the beginning, it's really a little bit shocking to see that it's this high a rate of sexual harassment but what's important is also that you need to talk about it in a way that doesn't feel stigmatizing to workers. Which I think was one of the strengths here is that we just asked them have you experienced x, y, and z behaviors and then at the end of that, after you've gone through everything, then you ask them about how they felt about it or how it impacted or what they did or didn't do about it. I think that was the strength that really allowed workers to open up and speak about the issue.

It's also important not to blame the workers.

• The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry [E]

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