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Why sexual harassment is rampant in the foodservice industry

In a post-Harvey Weinstein world, there’s an awful anticipation over which star’s worst-kept secret will be outed next. The outpouring of claims of sexual harassment and abuse helped popularize the #MeToo social media campaign, encouraging women to share their stories and spurring allegations against upwards of 60 high-profile men. In October, the movement’s momentum hit the foodservice industry. Since, behemoths such as Mario Batali, John Besh and Todd English were forced to confront accusations of alleged sexual harassment or misconduct.

For many women, the scope of the industry’s sexual harassment problem is not shocking. “To hear that [allegations] were being taken seriously and that it was being reported in a major publication—that was exciting to me,” says Caroline Richter, bartender at New Orleans’ Turkey and the Wolf. In fact, restaurant employees and other service workers have filed more sexual harassment claims with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 1995 to 2016 than any other profession, according to a report from BuzzFeed News.

With the industry tuning into women’s calls to address harassment, the question is, “Now what?” The answer is somewhat elusive. When asked who foodservice establishments can look to as a leader in stomping out workplace harassment, Amanda Cohen, chef-owner of New York City’s Dirt Candy, says there’s not really any such person. Ruth Gresser, owner and chef of Pizzeria Paradiso and Veloce in Washington, D.C., echoed Cohen’s perplexity. “The problem is so systemic and so fundamental to the industry.”

Although restaurants have yet to devise a winning model to combat sexual harassment, they are pointing to structural and cultural ways the industry can move forward. They’re areas noncommercial operators should keep in mind; while it’s not such a high-profile industry, no profession is immune to these issues.

Don’t skimp

Managers should go through both sexual harassment training and business management training, Cohen says. “There’s fire, there’s knives and there’s no handbook—you don’t always know how to do it.” Creating an employee handbook, or updating it for existing concepts, can be very pricey. “I had to have a lawyer go through it, and it was close to $10,000,” she says. While she admits it is a good thing to spend on, she did have to debate it as a cost when balancing other needs.

Meet often

When Cohen heard the industry allegations of sexual harassment trickling in, she looked at her business partner and asked, “Are we good? Does everybody know the policy?” Deciding it was time for a refresh, the restaurant held a series of staff meetings. “You don’t have to fire someone for saying something stupid,” she says. “But you have to nip it in the bud right away.”

Camaraderie can be a curse

The industry’s tight-knit community can create an energetic and personal workplace, but it can also make staffers who have experienced harassment less likely to report co-workers, Cohen says.

Richter says she’d trade some of that camaraderie for a more professional workplace. “We as an industry have been asking to be taken seriously,” she says. “If we want to be taken seriously, we need to set a professional tone.”

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