A new study from the University of Notre Dame found that more than 2/3 of restaurant employees have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the past six months.
This in itself is rather appalling, but the study’s additional findings will probably stand out to you just as much. The researchers found that it’s two common practices of the service industry that contribute to this behavior:
- Employees’ financial dependence on customers (i.e., tips), and
- Deference to customers with emotional labor (“service with a smile”)
This makes a lot of sense when you think about it. When customers hold this much power over service workers, it’s no surprise that the less scrupulous ones will take advantage of that power.
The “good” news (if you can call it that) is that both elements had to be present in order for sexual harrassment to occur. If employees are both dependent on tips and are required to smile and shrug off inappropriate comments, then certain people feel emboldened.
That makes me wonder, though, why require either one in the first place? It’s true, business owners would prefer not to pay their workers a living wage, so that means the elimination of tipping would probably need to be achieved via legislation.
But “service with a smile?” What is this, the 1950s? I think it’s reasonable to expect your employees to be pleasant and courteous to customers—but as soon as someone crosses the line, servers should be able to lose the smile and defend themselves. There’s no place for that behavior, ever. (What are you even worried about? A 1-star Yelp review? Jeez.)
Just in case you’re curious, the study tackled this phenomenon from both the perspective of the customer and the server.
The researchers asked servers how dependent they were on tips and to what degree they were expected to provide service with a smile; then they were asked how frequently they experienced sexual harassment.
But that only shows correlation. The researchers helped to establish causation by presenting hypothetical scenarios and manipulating a) how dependent waitresses were on tips, and b) the waitresses’ facial expressions. Then the researchers asked 229 men how powerful they’d feel and whether they’d engage in sexual harassment behaviors. As mentioned before—both tips and service with a smile had to be present in order for some these men to feel emboldened.
Can anything else be done?
I’ve been writing about topics like this because I think they’re important, but I don’t want to be a downer and give anyone the impression that we’re doomed as a species. So here’s what I think.
We’re living in the 21st century now; consumers are savvy and they prefer to do business with companies that share their values. So I would encourage businesses to really go to bat for their employees; make it part of their brand and what differentiates them from competitors.
What if the menu included a statement saying that tips were included in the prices, and they paid their employees a living wage? I’ve definitely heard of places like that being successful. I think it needs to become more widespread.