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Why Sexual Harassment Claims in the Restaurant Industry Are Often Overlooked

Stories of sexual harassment in industries such as media and tech have captured news attention for the past several months, and for good reason. According to a recent survey conducted by a nonprofit called Stop Street Harassment, 81% of women and 43% of men surveyed noted experiencing some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime.

One industry seems to have fallen under the radar when it comes to cases of sexual harassment, even though it is a space where the problem runs rampant. Recent data reported in the Harvard Business Review indicates that more sexual harassment claims in the U.S. are filed in the restaurant industry than any other. In fact, 37% of sexual harassment claims filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission involve restaurants, yet other, splashier stories tend to overshadow the industry’s insidious reality.

 A hidden issue, a glaring challenge

One reason sexual harassment in this industry is less visible is that low-wage workers are often those who experience the brunt of sexual harassment in restaurants. A “customer is always right” mentality combined with tip-based roles that require workers to remain pleasant and compliant can lead to harmful outcomes for some workers.

According to Meg A. Bond, director for the Center for Women and Work at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, some “work settings are just more fertile ground” for inappropriate behavior. When employees can be harassed by customers in addition to supervisors or coworkers, more opportunities exist for unwelcome sexual conduct.

HR and business leaders must understand that harassment doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Not only does it harm the employee who experiences it, but it also hurts employers. In 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the turnover rate in the restaurants and accommodations sector was nearly 73%, a percentage that had increased every year since 2010. In an industry with consistently high turnover rates, most restaurants can’t afford to have any employees leaving due to a preventable harm.

Avoid the fate of ‘too little, too late’

It’s true that some celebrity chefs have made headlines for sexual harassment, but by and large, the stories have done little to persuade industry overhauls or elicit policy changes. One example of a lack of foresight lies in a restaurant group in New Orleans which had more than a dozen restaurants and 1,200 employees, but lacked a director of human resources until 10 days before allegations of sexual harassment were published by the city’s Times-Picayune newspaper.

Business leaders must come to terms with the fact that sexual harassment isn’t something that can be swept under the rug or fixed in a 10-day flurry of compliance. Leaders should prioritize the safety and security of their employees and their business, and that means honestly assessing their company culture and making proactive, comprehensive changes when necessary.

A robust, frequently communicated policy against sexual harassment can help protect both your restaurant and your employees. Accessible, adaptive training is another way leaders can create a culture of safety and security while protecting the business from costly sexual harassment damages.

Learn more about how restaurants can reduce the risk of sexual harassment in our August 30 webinar, Preventing Sexual Harassment in Your Restaurant.