The Acceptability of Harassment in Hospitality
By Alana McConnell
| Illustration by Yi Jong
The hospitality industry is one that has long operated with an open secret, a culture of harassment. Alana McConnell discusses why this behaviour has been accepted and why we are so unwilling to address the root cause.
Content Warning: This article touches on issues regarding workplace harassment and misconduct. If you are seeking help on disciplinary matters, the highly trained advocacy team at AUTSA can provide a confidential and free service. While the team cannot provide legal advice they can give legal information. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Hospitality is predominantly made up of young women at the front of house, oftentimes in their teens and early twenties. When Covid-19 hit New Zealand, 90% of those who lost their jobs were women, comprised mainly of young people and Māori. Though at times fast-paced, exciting, and highly varied, hospitality can also be extremely difficult and thankless. Split shifts, minimum wage pay, non-existent breaks and entitled customers can be a less appealing side to the job. It would also be a stretch to find a woman who has worked in hospitality who has not had an experience involving creepy customers or co-workers, sexually inappropriate comments and advances, and feelings of discomfort. I’ve exchanged numerous stories with friends about our experiences, with our shared disbelief that this behaviour is so commonplace in the industry, so much so that it seems it should be advertised in the job description.
Maybe it’s due to the unconventional hours of the job, the alcohol being poured freely, and the informal setting where people come to relax and enjoy themselves that make harassment in the hospitality industry so rife. Over the course of working in the hospitality industry for six years, I wracked up my fair share of stories involving uncomfortable and inappropriate behaviour from customers and co-workers alike. When I was around 18, I had a summer job over the university break back in my hometown, at a Mediterreanean restaurant. One of the kitchen staff was known among all the front of house girls as being exceptionally creepy, to the point that most of the girls avoided being alone with him at all. One shift he looked at me and stated a combination of numbers and letters.
“Do you know what that is?” he asked me. “
That’s my license plate number,” I replied cautiously.
He nodded and gave me a knowing smile. I’m not sure what he was trying to achieve by saying that to me and by memorising my license plate number, but it definitely didn’t make me feel very comfortable. He was constantly asking us if we had boyfriends, and I found it a lot easier to make up a fictional boyfriend than to say I didn’t. I’ve created a fictional boyfriend on a few occasions during shifts, as it seems men respect the idea of a boyfriend more than a woman simply saying no. I know that so many others in the industry have experienced serious cases of harassment and and situations that leave them feeling hot-faced and uncomfortable, but it seems to be so commonplace that it’s never considered to be worthy of large scale attention. The risk of losing your job or being viewed as a drama queen or an attention seeker can be enough for many hospitality workers to downplay their experiences or only confide in their friends instead of taking it up with management, especially if management is the one responsible.
A friend of mine worked at a hole in the wall bar in Auckland’s city centre, and when I asked her about her experiences in the industry, Aria had a number of less than pleasant experiences. “With bar work, I am almost never greeted or acknowledged in any way by men when my male coworker is also working next to me. I’m referred to as ‘baby’, ‘hunny’, and ‘darling’, while literally being eye-fucked.” Even in positions of authority such as acting as a duty manager, if you are a young woman in front of a group of older men, often you will still not be taken seriously or you will be undermined due to your age and your gender. Elysia recounted her experience of being a duty manager at a restaurant where a large group of men came every week to play poker. Men in the group made comments about the way women poured beers, calling them bitches and even going so far to spit in the face of the female servers. Only after the male boss told them that the behaviour was not acceptable and threatened to ban them, did they reluctantly apologise, but consistently ignored Elysia’s warnings and assertions. Elysia had forgotten about this experience but now remembers the distinct feeling of smallness. Her authority meant nothing to these men.
It doesn’t seem like sexual harassment in the hospitality industry is taken as seriously as if it were to happen in an office or a corporate environment. Perhaps it’s because in restaurants there isn’t a human resources department, or any sort of process or way to actually deal with complaints of harassment? Maybe the temporary nature of hospitality jobs has something to do with it, where it’s easier to quit than to go through the risky process of coming forward with your experience to a senior member of staff, where there is a high chance you won’t be taken seriously. Or if you come forward with allegations in an office or institution, the way the company responds can determine their future success and reputation. Companies like Russell McVeagh are forced to go through “full internal investigations” if staff members come forward with allegations, but this is usually only done after years of turning a blind eye and ignoring the warning signs. The scandal at the Russell McVeagh law firm made national headlines while it most likely would take an allegation of immense magnitude in the hospitality industry to be talked about in the community. If you take away prestige, stature, and power, then how many people are left caring about a harassment case?
I got a job at a bustling all day eatery in a central Auckland suburb, and from the outside it seemed like a pretty amazing job. I was pretty friendly with one of the chefs, who was a 37 year old man. I was 21 at the time. He took a liking to me, as I took the time to interact with the chefs and make conversation. But one day he said to me “I wish I was younger so I could take you out on a date”. On my last shift I was walking up to the storeroom to give it a clean, and he shouted behind me “Do you want some help up there?” I had no idea what to say, but it made me feel exceedingly uncomfortable. This was minor compared to a particular regular customer in his late 50s, who appeared to always be drunk when he arrived in the evenings. Every time he ordered a bottle of expensive red wine and the $48 scotch fillet, potentially owing to why no manager ever called him out. This man made sexually inappropriate comments to nearly every female member of staff, one time telling me to “stop smiling you’re too sexy” and it angered me that even though they knew this was a common occurrence, nothing was ever done about it. Though they were made aware by staff, they chose to turn a blind eye.
Taking a wild guess it appeared they cared more about business than sticking up for the staff in their care. This was also a business where the owners kept the tips for themselves and only gave a share to the staff members they liked enough. I never saw a tip in my entire time working there.
I’ve created a fictional boyfriend on a few occasions during shifts, as it seems men respect the idea of a boyfriend more than a woman simply saying no.
On the surface New Zealand can easily be categorised as an egalitarian and progressive country that values equality and opportunities. It can be easy to think that when you look to other parts of the world where women are still lacking equality on so many levels, facing the threat of violence every day from the moment they are born. When we compare our experiences in New Zealand to other parts of the world, this can create an issue of comparative suffering. Comparative suffering undermines our own experiences and doesn’t allow us to take them seriously, feeling as if we need to rank our pain against someone else who has it so much worse.
But just because the issues in New Zealand aren’t as visceral or obvious, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It’s disheartening to have our lived experiences minimised because other people haven’t experienced it themselves first-hand, and are unable to put themselves in someone else’s position. I think we still live in a world where when someone comes forward with an allegation and a bad experience, the first thing that happens is that they are placed under a microscope, dissected and automatically disbelieved. If it’s happened to them before then we might think that they’ve done something to cause this, or try to find their role and responsibility. Since July 2018, The Ministry of Business and Innovation (MBIE) has collected workplace sexual misconduct data, initially only collecting data on bullying and harassment. This was largely inspired by the #MeToo movement, and the increased awareness that sexual misconduct is rampant in a variety of industries. This is promising, because the acknowledgement that sexual misconduct is a key player within the realm of harassment is a vital first step towards positive cultural changes. The MBIE is now gathering feedback from those who are familiar with the systems that prevent or respond to harassment at work. The feedback will be used to guide future policies and changes to health and safety in the workplace. The government has also started to strengthen the Protected Disclosures Act 2000, which provides protections for workers who report wrongdoings at work. The new act (also known as the Protection of Whistleblowers) was introduced into parliament on the 24th of June 2020. Every industry, whether it be hospitality, entertainment, education, law, all need a huge cultural shift.
We’ve never really been in a position of power when we work in hospitality, especially as a young person trying to make rent every week, accepting minimum wage and putting up with gross treatment because you feel you don’t have any other options. It’s only made worse when you don’t feel supported by your manager or boss, when money and profit is placed at a higher value than your safety and health. When businesses don’t even have the bare minimum of care for their employees, such as legal breaks, correct pay, and safe working environments, it’s no surprise that goes hand in hand with a rampant work culture of harassment and misconduct. There absolutely needs to be accountability and transparency in this industry, and we need to move away from the norm of a hospitality job being unsafe and filled with unsavoury tales. From a government and policy level, I do believe changes are being made, and we can thank the #MeToo movement for that. Hopefully we can move away from this being a common occurrence in the industry and something that always deserves to be called out and stamped out.