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Restaurants’ sexual harassment problems come to the fore

Photograph: AP Photo/Richard Vogel

Last week's protests at McDonald’s restaurants have once again brought to the forefront an issue that has long plagued the restaurant industry: sexual harassment in the workplace. Aside from high-profile incidents involving well-known restaurateurs such as Mario Batali and John Besh, harassment among rank-and-file managers and employees remains common.  

Last year, for instance, the Center for American Progress found that 14.2% of all sexual harassment claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) were at a hotel or a restaurant. That made the hospitality industry the biggest source for such complaints.

Numerous surveys of employees, meanwhile, have found sexual harassment to be a common, frequent problem. A 2016 study by Hart Research Associates, for example, found that 40% of more than 1,200 female fast-food workers said they had been subject to some form of sexual harassment. Other surveys have found the incidence rate to be much higher. “It can happen in any workplace,” says Kate Gallagher Robbins, director of poverty policy for the Center for American Progress. “But it’s particularly pervasive at restaurants.”

Beyond McDonald’s

The Fight for $15 advocacy group has started using these problems as another means to put pressure on Chicago-based McDonald’s.

In May, employees in the chain’s restaurants in nine cities around the country filed EEOC complaints. That included one at a location in St. Louis, where a 15-year-old worker says that managers ignored comments from an older worker who said, “You have a nice body, you ever have white chocolate inside you?”

McDonald’s, for its part, says it has strong policies and training in place to prevent sexual harassment. “To ensure we are doing all that can be done, we have engaged experts in the areas of prevention and response including RAINN to evolve our policies so everyone who works at McDonald’s does so in a secure environment every day,” the chain noted in a statement.

But the problem is hardly limited to McDonald’s. Last week, some young female workers at a Del Taco in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., filed an EEOC lawsuit saying that three male supervisors sexually harassed and retaliated against them. The lawsuit claims that supervisors harassed female staff, mostly teenagers, with inappropriate sexual comments and unwanted touching. The complaint says some of the women made formal complaints but that no corrective action was taken.

In a statement, Del Taco said that it “takes this matter very seriously and we are currently investigating the allegations that have been brought to our attention.”

“Based on the findings of that investigation, we will take action as appropriate. Del Taco is committed to providing a safe environment for all employees and customers, free from harassment of any kind.”

The EEOC has sued numerous restaurant companies recently over sexual harassment. In May, a Burger King franchisee agreed to pay $55,000 to settle an EEOC sexual harassment lawsuit. Bojangles’ late last year agreed to pay $15,000 to settle a lawsuit. Earlier this year, more than 60 women filed a lawsuit against Applebee’s and IHOP restaurants claiming sexual harassment.

Two IHOP restaurants agreed to pay nearly $1 million to settle a lawsuit in July; Applebee’s agreed to pay $75,000 earlier that same month.

Workforce challenges

Restaurants have high turnover and low pay, which may contribute to the problem: Workers are less loyal to a job or don’t feel empowered to report an incident, so they just leave rather than report any issue.

They also have a young workforce that is less experienced about how to act. “I can imagine that people who are younger and therefore new to the workforce don’t have a full understanding of their rights or responsibilities,” Gallagher Robbins said.

“Whether you have a younger staff or a staff facing a lot of turnover, it’s incumbent upon restaurants to make sure everyone is aware of and trained on their rights: what they shouldn’t do, and what they should do if something happens to them,” she says.

Another issue: a gender disparity between workers and managers inside of restaurants, noted Stefanie Johnson, an associate professor with the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, and Juan Madera, a professor for the University of Houston’s Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, in a piece for the Harvard Business Review earlier this year. The combination of female frontline workers and male managers can create an environment in which sexual harassment is tolerated.

Many also believe that reliance on tips for income leaves waitstaff vulnerable to harassment from both customers and employees. “It creates a power dynamic that allows sexual harassment to flourish,” Gallagher Robbins says.

Establish a strong culture

Johnson and Madera say that companies must establish strong sexual harassment policies for their employees to follow, and they must address the complaints fairly. They also suggest separate mechanisms or channels for employees to deal with the harassment if it’s the managers who are responsible.

Training is another remedy, both for employees and for managers, as well as bystander training—teaching others not to stand by silently. That’s a vital component, given the transitory nature of the industry’s workforce, as well as its youth.

“It’s not a one-stop solution,” says Janet Benoit, vice president of learning and development with the National Restaurant Association. “But you have to start the conversation. That’s what training is able to do.” The association’s ServSafe certification program has recently introduced new workplace sexual harassment training, for instance, with different versions for employees and managers. The training was developed as the association followed the #MeToo movement and saw how it changed the conversation about workplace culture and harassment.

Still, while most agree training helps, it’s not the only solution. Gallagher Robbins suggests that improved pay will reduce harassment in workplaces, while also improving the overall workforce by empowering the employees to stand up for themselves in such situations.

And most agree that for companies to stop such situations, they need a broad, systemwide effort to combat the problem. Training is “not going to provide the cultural shift everybody is looking for,” Benoit says. “Training starts it. But any restaurant, any hotel, has to commit to a larger effort.”

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