Me Too Awareness Raises Questions About the Customer-Server Dynamic

Posted by at 17 May, at 11 : 13 AM Print

Restaurant Workers Are Increasingly Unaccepting of Inappropriate Behavior


Go into any restaurant and it seems like common, innocent behavior:  Customers semi-flirting with their server or bartender, usually just lightheartedly, with no mal intent.  But there are times when that lighthearted behavior crosses the line, and with a cultural shift underway instigated by the Me Too movement and the national conversation it has initiated, service professionals are beginning to talk openly about the need to reexamine the way that customers and restaurant staff interact.

Where workplace harassment is typically perpetrated on subordinates by their superiors (and the restaurant industry is not without its high-profile examples of this variety), hospitality workers have to also navigate the terrain of customer-on-server harassment; a phenomenon with complex nuances that calls into question many of the industry’s orthodoxies.  The topic was the subject of a recent article in the New York Times that explored the dynamic between customers and service staff and how the lure of a generous tip can sometimes cause restaurant workers to tolerate behaviors that would otherwise be unacceptable. 

For certain, there are many shades of harassment, with some shades worth the trade-off for a bigger tip, according to some of the subjects interviewed for the piece.  But some shades are not only not worth the tip, but constitute outright assault.  Dana Angelo, a server at a restaurant in New York, relayed an instance in which a customer

“reached under her skirt and grabbed her crotch, then continued on his way”. 

Rather than call the customer out in public, she reported the incident to her manager, expecting that he would take some form of action.  In any other business the police would probably had been called, and the perpetrator been charged with a sex crime.  Instead, she only saw the manager say a few words to the customer and shake his hand.  “It was the second layer of hurt,” she told the Times.  

Speak to any female server and she can tell you dozens of anecdotes in which a customer will ask for her number, extend the offer of a date, or serve up comments about her looks.  

The fact that even harmless flirtatious banter is commonplace, signals that society still has a long way to go in how it views and treats women.  

“My perception of sexual harassment in the workplace is probably skewed because it’s so prevalent in the restaurant industry that you get used to it,” said Ashley Maina-Lowe, of Tuscon, Arizona.  “It’s just part of the job, and it’s up to you to decide what you’re willing to let slide.” 

But where a compliment ends and harassment begins is not always a question of what a server is willing to “let slide”.  

Central to most discussions of sexual harassment is how the balance of power is frequently leveraged to extort favors or permit behaviors that are otherwise verboten.  While the industry mantra is fixed on the customer always being in the right, the most frequent exploitation occurs as a result of anticipation of a big tip.  Put frankly, a server will often tolerate inappropriate advances if it means more money in her or his pocket at the end of the shift.  The dynamic is causing restaurant workers and owners to question whether its time to abandon the customary gratuity in exchange for higher wages for service staff; whose cost would be passed onto customers via a service charge in the manner of restaurants in Europe.

The issue is being considered by states that are debating the removal of the tip credit, which would raise the minimum wage for tipped employees (seven states have already removed the tip credit, and New York is currently debating the issue).  The logic behind the effort suggests that servers will be less dependent on gratuities, giving them liberty to be less tolerant of unwanted advances.  Such a move would not be welcome by the industry, of course, which would see front of the house labor costs balloon overnight.  But the removal of the tip credit isn’t the only area where the government can weigh in on sexual harassment:  Add to the cocktail recent court rulings that hold restaurant owners responsible for the behavior of patrons.  Restaurants that do not adequately protect their staff from harassment, or fall short in the manner in which they address customer incidents, could be liable for financial damages.

Whether restaurants pursue a new paradigm for server compensation (restaurateur Danny Meyer famously removed tipping from all of his high-end eateries in Manhattan a few years ago), or whether managers come to understand their evolving role in protecting  their staff from sexual advances from customer, awareness and the shifting sands of what is culturally acceptable are raising the volume of the conversation in the restaurant industry. 


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