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My Coworkers Turned on Me When I Reported a Chef to HR

I had a witness, I spoke up about what happened to me, but I was the one who ended up leaving

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What I remember is the sudden surge of pain in my waist as he put his hand around me. His hand was just beneath my breast, and he squeezed my body closer to his. He left a red handprint on my skin that lasted for several hours. I remember his lips curling into a smile as he laughed in my face when I told him to stop slapping my ass. I can still see myself looking down at the wide gold pipe beneath my feet as I tried to use it it to balance the bar stool I was sitting on as it swayed because of his aggressive movements. The most traumatic experience from this physical violation, however, was when I was blamed for it.

I wasn’t going to report what happened to the management at the restaurant where we both worked, the restaurant where it took place. He was a sous chef, I was a waitress. Even though I immediately internalized what happened as an assault, I weighed the consequences of reporting, considering how it might make things worse for me. Would he attack me again out of anger? Would he threaten me? I was sure there was a chance that he would find some way to make my work life miserable.

A coworker who saw the incident and came to my aid suggested I go to human resources. I’m not sure I would have without the encouragement and knowledge that I had a real witness. A few days later, I reported it. The HR manager was an older, maternal woman. I hadn’t interacted much with her, but I expected her to be someone who would tell me everything was going to be okay and that I did the right thing by telling her what happened. At first, I thought she truly cared. The sous chef would be written up for his behavior. But as our conversation continued, I realized that she seemed to be shifting some of the blame to me. She said she knew I was a “friendly girl” and she had been a “hot young thing” like me once, so she felt it was important to tell me that my “friendliness could be misconstrued for flirtation.” By her logic, I was a nice coworker and an attractive young woman, so I was responsible for what happened to me.

I was shocked. I pored over my prior interactions with the sous chef. We were just coworkers. I replayed the night in my head. I was the “perfect victim.” I wasn’t drunk or alone, I wasn’t wearing a short skirt or a low-cut top, and I was surrounded by people I knew and trusted in a public place. Several people saw it happen. When I left the restaurant that day, a manager even acknowledged what happened by saying, “That was weird, huh?” I shrugged and left. Weird was an understatement.

Two in three victims don’t report their assault to the police, according to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). The top reason given for not reporting was fear of retaliation. As it turns out, I feared retaliation from the wrong person. Almost immediately after HR closed my investigation, management made one policy change at the restaurant. Because the sous chef was drinking when he grabbed and groped me, employees were no longer allowed to drink alcohol at the restaurant. The thinking behind the change was itself misguided — a human, not alcohol, attacked me. But the ramifications were worse. It was my community, rather than the man who hurt me, that made my life at work unbearable.

It started with rumors. There were many people around me enjoying their shift drink when he groped me, and it seemed like everyone had a different story about what they saw.

Several told me that I had overreacted and that he was just being playful. Others said they thought he didn’t mean anything by it because he was drinking. Many didn’t say a word to me, but they’d stop talking when I walked into the room. I felt like the “incident” was all they could think about when they looked at me. I couldn’t understand why they were making excuses for him. Why was there only one person who understood what actually happened?

“I believe you, but…”

“Was it that big of a deal?”

In a tale as old as time, I was tagged as a slut and an attention-seeker by coworkers. And I was vilified for ending shift drinks. Several of the bartenders began to flat-out ignore me whenever I asked them for anything during service, putting my tickets at the end of the line and forcing my tables to wait longer for wine and cocktails. Bussers would ignore my tables. At one point, a fellow server accused me of flirting with male managers as a way to get preferential treatment. I was being iced out, treated in ways that prevented me from being able to perform my job.

Despite having reported what happened to HR, I was still working shifts with the man who attacked me. He was a long-time employee of the company. I’d only been there a year. As far as I could tell, he had barely been penalized.

I started to wonder if I was partly to blame for what happened after all. The sous chef faced few consequences; my coworkers told me I was overreacting. Everyone around made it clear I was the problem. So I retreated. I stopped having regular conversations with my coworkers during our shifts. Whenever I could, I opted to work private dining events rather than serving shifts in the main dining room, to avoid the most aggressive of my coworkers. But when I was working regular dinner or brunch service, I was still met with doubt from coworkers who wanted the new policy reversed.

I regretted talking to HR. Maybe if I hadn’t, things would have gone back to normal and I’d learn to forget what happened. As weeks passed, life at the restaurant just got worse. Two months after I reported what happened, I quit.

A 2014 report by Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC) United showed that while only 7 percent of American women work in restaurants, “more than a third of all sexual harassment claims to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come from the restaurant industry.” This leaves women in the industry with two shitty choices: put up with the harassment or find another job. Of the women surveyed, 25 percent said they sought new employment “as a result of unwanted sexual attention in their workplace.”

Take another look at that statistic. It also tells us that changing jobs within the industry isn’t an easy out from harassment at work. In restaurants, dirty jokes are shouted out as frequently as “hot food in the window,” and an ass grab can happen as quickly and nonchalantly as a hot plate is grabbed off of the pass. Changing restaurants might not solve the problem. And in a profession where seniority means you’re guaranteed to get the best shifts, leaving a job when you’ve reached a breaking point makes you the new kid again. Your paycheck suffers accordingly. Mine did.

But I did what everyone says you’re supposed to do. I reported the problem quickly. I gave details and I had a witness to back up my story. Given my experience, I cannot recommend that other women experiencing misconduct in restaurants go to HR without reservation.

Reporting is traumatic. It requires a tremendous amount of emotional labor. To report means you have to relive your trauma. The very structure of reporting puts the onus on survivors to solve the problem and drive change. Too often, the negative consequences far outweigh any positive result. But we must continue speaking up. Silence empowers abusers and emboldens future abusers. So does organizational and communal victim blaming.

According to a 2017 ABC News/Washington Post poll, 95 percent of women polled said they don’t see consequences for accused men. Add my abuser to that list. While I did want him to be punished, I also decided to report because I wanted to make sure that it never happened again, and I trusted the restaurant’s management to do everything they could to ensure that. But what transpired showed me that they didn’t take my claim seriously. Yes, they investigated it and took some disciplinary action against him, but they were never interested in protecting and supporting me as a victim.

If restaurants took reporting seriously, there’d be an unambiguous zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy that was communicated clearly, in advance, and often, to all employees. Within that, there would be an established reporting protocol about what would happen, which would ideally include an investigation, an immediate rearrangement of shift schedules if the person coming forward so chooses, and an offer of mental health services, all of which would be done as confidentially as possible. Setting real consequences to credible claims of harassment and making that policy known is equally important, because it shows follow-through on the restaurant’s part.

If restaurants took reporting seriously, they would outsource the investigation to a third party. HR (when it actually exists in a restaurant) is designed to make sure the restaurant is legally compliant, and — while sexual harassment is of course illegal — HR will always prioritize the business over the employee. Whether the third party is a union, an organization like ROC, or a government agency, there should be another place for workers to turn besides the company itself.

Restaurants need to stop protecting abusers. Talent, dedication to the job, and loyalty to the company should not exempt anyone from facing the consequences of their own bad behavior.

If restaurants took reporting seriously, coming forward wouldn’t mean having to leave.

Ashley Goldsmith is a San Francisco-based writer who covers food, travel, and women’s issues. Shannon Wright is an illustrator and cartoonist based out of Richmond, VA.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan

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