Sexual harassment: Navigating the gray areas

Reports of sexual harassment in the restaurant business have roused alarm in part because the alleged misconduct was so patently wrong. The challenge for management is handling situations where the interactions are far more ambiguous, as they’re bound to be when an operation is at full throttle, warned a panel of experts with widely divergent perspectives.

That reality was emphasized repeatedly by the group, which was pulled together Monday at the Institute of  Culinary Education in New York City for a freewheeling discussion of sexual harassment. The five—three operators, a lawyer and a psychotherapist—were invited by the school to explore why the industry has generated a flurry of sexual misconduct scandals in recent months, and to explore solutions.

Part of the challenge, the participants agreed, is realizing what constitutes sexual harassment. Carolyn Richmond, an attorney who formerly worked for the multiconcept operation B.R. Guest, provided a legal definition: It has to be unwelcomed conduct, it has to be aimed at someone because of that person’s gender, it has to negatively affect the individual and his or her ability to do the job and it has to fall within the statute of limitations.

“Just because they call you the ‘B’ word or the ‘C’ word, that does not mean it’s sexual harassment,” explained Richmond, who’s now with the New York firm Fox Rothschild. “Saying, ‘Your boobs look nice,’ is not necessarily sexual harassment.”

Indeed, said panelist Kutina Ruhumbika, director of human resources for the Barteca restaurant group, “today, the ‘B’ word can be a term of endearment. I hear my young staffers using it. People hearing it welcomed the behavior. But the people around them might not welcome it.”

The tight space of a kitchen and the intensity of a dinner rush can also foster situations that might be innocent, yet could be taken as lechery. Moderator Stephen Zagor, dean of ICE’s culinary business and industry program, cited the example of someone lugging an open pot of hot liquid down the line. The person might rest his hand on the back of a cook and say, “Hot,” just to protect the person from suddenly turning around and bumping into the pot. “If that happened at the copier machine in an office setting, the person might take ‘hot’ in a different way,” he said.

Or a staffer slipping sideways behind the line may brush his crotch against the backside of a cook working a station, not to be lewd, but because the team is mashed together. “When someone rubs against someone, it’s not necessarily harassment. It’s busy, and they just want to get [the food] out,” said Richmond. “We teach employees to use their voice, to yell, ‘Excuse me.’”

Sorting out what’s harassment and what’s the peculiar functioning of a restaurant is tough, since the matter can be far from black and white, the panelists agreed. The operators recounted how they investigate the matter and try to alleviate the situation rather than reflexively cutting a last check for the accused party. Coaching can sometimes be as effective of a solution as dismissal, said Ruhumbika.

The panelists also cited instances where they resolved a situation by reposting the involved parties in positions where they no longer have to interact. They stressed that misbehavior should not be tolerated, but that the options extend beyond immediate dismissal of an accused party.

Richmond noted that employment policies provide considerable empowerment for the employer. Even if the behavior doesn’t meet the legal definition of sexual harassment, it could be a clear violation of the restaurant’s employee policies. “It doesn’t mean we have to accept that behavior,” she said.

The two-hour seminar was convened in the wake of recent highly publicized allegations of harassment and sexual attack by some of the biggest names in the business.

“There are reports that it might just be the tip of the iceberg,” said Zagor. “We are an industry under siege, like many.

“We will see more big names to come.”

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