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6 ways to combat sexual harassment in restaurants

Reports of restaurant celebrities preying on female contacts have fostered a sense the industry is rife with sexual harassment. But that judgment doesn’t fit the operations that had safeguards in place long before the John Besh and Mario Batali scandals broke, experts agreed Monday at a seminar held by the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City.

The five panelists shared what they see as effective ways for restaurateurs to curb inappropriate behavior, from the obvious—“Don’t send dick pics,” admonished attorney Carolyn Richmond—to the subtle, like watching what’s said in the workplace.

Here is a sampling of their recommendations.

1. Don’t comment on appearances. Period.

There is still considerable ambiguity about what a court might regard as sexually menacing or impermissible language, said Richmond, a former HR executive and legal counsel for operators such as B.R. Guest in New York City. A simple “You look really pretty today,” or “Wow, I love that top!” can be taken the wrong way, by the employee and the legal system.

“We’re in a brave new world right now and we don’t have any case law yet,” Richmond said. “The courts are going to be grappling with where that line is.

“Right now, I think it’s wrong for management to comment on appearance or looks.”

2. Fire guests who act inappropriately

The abundance of restaurant-related harassment complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission arise because of a guest’s inappropriate behavior, noted Stephen Zagor, moderator of the ICE panel and dean of the school’s culinary business and industry studies. The best way to avoid becoming the subject of such a complaint: Don’t be afraid to toss the customer.

“Just as we can dismiss employees, we can fire our guests as well,” said Kutina Ruhumbika, director of HR for Barteca, the parent of the Barcelona and Bartaco restaurant chains.

Richmond recounted how a customer was hesitant to bounce a high-spending customer who routinely harassed the staff, knowing the loss of business would hurt. She explained that her fees for handling a routine harassment suit would be a far bigger hit to the bottom line.

3. Prohibit flirting by servers

A restaurateur in the audience of Monday’s seminar asked for advice on handling servers who flirt with customers in hopes of drawing a bigger tip. “Very simple,” said Richmond. “We tell employees, ‘Don’t flirt for tips.’ We have terminated employees who have practiced sexual harassment by coming on to guests or being flirtatious.”

4. Be receptive

Not all perceived sexual harassment is the real thing, the panelists stressed. Nor does questionable behavior have to end with the alleged aggressor being dismissed. The key to having the right perspective, panelists agreed, is openly talking as staff about what’s inappropriate, assuring employees they can come forward if they have an issue and having a clear process for airing the complaints.

“It’s not a taboo topic in our organization—we talk about it openly and frequently,” said Ruhumbika. Employees know that any retaliation for bringing an issue to management’s attention would not be tolerated, and everyone knows how to contact a member of management. As a result, even with the spotlight that’s been cast on harassment by the recent rash of high-profile allegations, “we have not seen an increase [in complaints], knock on wood,” she said.

5. Use the grandma test

Deciding what’s appropriate can be a judgment call, the panelists noted; an offense to one person could be a hilarious observation to another. “The comment I often get is, ‘Can’t anyone take a joke anymore? What can we say or do?’” said Susan Spikes, EVP of operations for Hill Country Hospitality, the operator of Hill Country Barbecue and Hill Country Chicken in New York City.

Richmond suggested a simple test to decide whether something edgy or potentially off-color is OK to say. “Treat it like you’re in church or at temple and you’re with your 90-year-old grandma,” she said.

6. Be aware that standards change

Language regarded as offensive a few years ago may be a term of endearment today, several panelists noted. At least three mentioned referring to a female staffer as “bitch,” or the “’B’ word,” which can be synonymous with “friend” or “BFF” in some circles.

There are “new rules, both formal and informal,” noted Zagor. “We are still in new territory. The key here is for all of us to make a difference.”

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