Over the past decade, the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have shed light on sexual harassment and assault in high profile sectors such as Hollywood, politics, and tech, and by well-known personalities and public figures. However, the movements did little to highlight the insidious and routine sexual harassment faced by employees working lower profile, and lower paying, jobs. The highest rates of sexual harassment at work are reported by service industry workers, restaurant employees in particular.

According to the Harvard Business Review, nearly 90% of female restaurant employees and 70% of male restaurant employees have reportedly experience sexual harassment at work; nearly 50% of female restaurant employees report experiencing sexual harassment on a weekly basis. Harassers can be both fellow employees and paying customers. Restaurant industry employees file complaints of sexual harassment to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission at a higher rate than do employees of any other industry.

So, what makes the restaurant industry particularly ripe for sexual harassment?

First, men hold a vast majority of positions of power withing the restaurant industry. In contrast, a majority of all restaurant employees are women, and over 70% of restaurant servers are women. Restaurants employ significantly more young workers than the U.S. labor force. According to the National Restaurant Association, nearly 40% of restaurant employees are under the age of 25. Additionally, restaurants employ more immigrants and non-native English speakers when compared to the U.S. labor force. The difference in power between management and frontline workers likely causes a chilling effect, disempowering workers from raising complaints, and contributing to an environment where harassment is normalized and tolerated.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, restaurant workers likewise occupy seven of the 10 lowest-paid occupations in US. The restaurant industry likewise sees high rates of turnover. The pay and prevalence of turnover furthers an environment where workers may find it easier to leave their jobs than to stand up against a hostile and harassing workplace.

Second, a vast majority of restaurant workers receive an hourly rate well below a living wage and are required to earn tips from their customers in order to make themselves whole. The need to please the customer, appear friendly and positive at work, is a prerequisite to the worker receiving livable pay. Customers have leeway to treat restaurant workers as they please, knowing that their server will likely continue to serve them with a smile in order to earn their tip. A 2021 study conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Notre Dame, Penn State University and the Emlyon Business School in France, found that “dependency on tips and a requirement to appear emotionally pleasant on the job work together to increase an employee’s risk of being sexually harassed.”

So, what can restaurants do to reduce sexual harassment?

Restaurants can be liable for claims of sexual harassment brought by employees regarding harassment from fellow coworkers or paying customers, if they have notice and fail to prevent the harassment. It is in the best interest of restaurant owners and managers, morally, legally, and financially, to prevent sexual harassment from occurring in the first place. There are certain steps restaurant owners and management can take to reduce sexual harassment.

First, restaurant management should make it clear to all employees and management that the organization does not tolerate sexual harassment. Restaurants should develop procedures for employees to report sexual harassment and enforce anti-retaliation policies when complaints are brought. Organizations should ensure that complaints can be raised with several decision makers in the event that a manager in charge of dealing with sexual harassment complaints is themselves the harasser.

Second, short of eliminating the tip-system, restaurants should make it clear to employees and customers that customers may not harass their employees. Managers should be charged with protecting frontline employees from harassment from customers by moving employees to different tables or sections, and or by addressing the inappropriate behavior with the customer. Restaurants enforce their own standards for customer conduct, for example ‘no shoes, no shirt, no service.’ ‘No sexual harassment’ should be added to the list. Managers are within their right to deny service to harassing customers, and should do so if a customer is treating restaurant workers inappropriately.

Third, restaurant managers should receive anti-sexual harassment training, training on how to deal with complaints of sexual harassment, intervene, and confront customers. If restaurant workers are aware that their employer does not tolerate harassment, and knows that their managers have training on how to process issues relating to sexual harassment, employees will likely feel empowered to raise complaints to management.

What should you do if you work at a restaurant and are experiencing sexual harassment?

If you have experienced sexual harassment at work, you may be entitled to compensation, including emotional distress and lost wages under federal and state laws. In order to support your case, save evidence. Record all relevant events or interactions in writing. Save related notes and documents. But be aware that in California, it is not legal to record private interactions with others without their consent.

Report the harassment directly to your employer.

Reach out to an employment attorney. At any point in this process, whether you are currently experiencing harassment, have reported harassment to your employer, an attorney will be able to help you navigate this process and advocate for you.

Navruz Avloni is an employment attorney dedicated to fighting for your right to a workplace free of unlawful sexual harassment. Contact us to schedule a free consultation with Navruz Avloni.