This article is part of a series of research-based pieces that explore harassment by industry, including healthcare, hospitality, tech, and the industrial and manufacturing sector. The series also delves into harassment-related issues brought about by transitions to in-person, remote and hybrid office work models.
Many organizations are taking measures to prevent harassment, but did you know that there are some specific challenges that are unique to the hospitality industry? It has to do with a blurring of boundaries between work and social activities that can create a situation where workplace harassment may go unchecked. Let’s look at the realities of harassment in the hospitality industry, why there is a prevalence of this kind of behavior—and the concrete steps that HR professionals like you and other business leaders can take to prevent it.
What are the realities of harassment in the hospitality industry?
Research shows that harassment is pervasive in the hospitality industry. By way of example, the restaurant industry has more sexual harassment claims filed against it than any other industry. And a stunning 90% of women and 70% of men reportedly experience some form of sexual harassment.
Echoing this pattern, another study found that 89% of hospitality workers have experienced harassment. Bar and Restaurant Coach describes the situation for hospitality employees in this way, “Look around your venue and in your mind’s eye, put a check mark over the heads of 9 out of 10 people. Now consider that those survey numbers are often skewed because incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault are grossly underreported.”
Why is there a prevalence of harassment in hospitality?
Let’s look at why there is such a prevalence of harassment in the hospitality industry. Kantola’s partner, Littler, the largest employment law firm in the world, provides us with this explanation, “The food and hospitality industries are prime breeding grounds for sexual harassment to occur given the working environments, which may involve isolated quarters (such as hotel rooms), late hours (such as the late shift in a bar), small- to medium-sized staff (such as a restaurant), ego-driven work (such as a top culinary personality), and risk factors such as alcohol. These environmental issues are exacerbated by the general idea that the food and hospitality industries are there ‘to please.’ With industries built entirely around providing customers ‘an experience’ and a good time, things can get out of hand.”
Fitting with this assessment, research has shown that harassment from customers may be going unnoticed. An experimental study found that managers perceived the same sexually harassing behavior as less negative when it was done by a customer than by an employee. And a survey of 300 hospitality workers revealed that 86% felt unsafe or at risk at work, and close to half surveyed feel their employers don’t take sexual harassment in the workplace seriously.
What is the best way to solve the problem?
Drawn in part from suggestions offered by Littler, here are some ideas for tackling harassment in the hospitality industry.
1. Set your plan and assess your current policies and practices
With support from leadership and ongoing engagement with managers, prepare your plan for addressing harassment. Include an assessment of policies and practices, making sure they are clear, consistent and comply with recent legislative changes. Set steps for how your organization will react (internally and publicly) should harassment complaints occur.
2. Launch training that addresses concerns specific to the hospitality environment
Your training should cover issues that are unique to the hospitality industry and provide guidance for your employees on what to look for and what they should do in certain circumstances. For instance, if a manager witnesses an employee being harassed by another employee or a customer, the training should offer tools and strategies for appropriate and timely intervention.
3. Have a process for investigating employee allegations
Make sure employees know what to do if they need to report harassment. Create a culture that empowers them to come forward and make it clear there will be no retaliation. Once a complaint is lodged, the investigation should begin promptly. For example, if a hospitality employee complains about being subjected to lewd remarks, ensure that your process has mechanisms for swiftly addressing the complaint.
These are just a few of the key steps that hospitality organizations must take to prevent harassment. The larger goal? Elevate your culture to a level where harassment has no place, where employees feel safe, appreciated and able to perform at their best. This is the path to an environment where both the employees and the organization can thrive and grow—now and into the future.