Beat back the bullies

07 February 2008
Beat back the bullies

Bullying is still very much part of the workplace culture in the hospitality industry. Humayun Hussain finds out what can be done to prevent it

Before launching his reality TV series The Restaurant last year, Raymond Blanc gave a widely reported magazine interview in which he lambasted the macho ways of some of his rivals and commented that they will end up behind bars if they continue to bully staff.

Despite the growing protection employment law provides to British workers, it's a fact that bullying, whether in the kitchen or front of house, is very much alive in the hospitality workplace.

Often though, it is deemed that the kitchen, thanks to its pressurised environment, is understandably a hotbed for chefs and other personnel to lose their cool and indulge in frayed tempers and bad language.

It is, of course, perfectly natural for chefs to lead their teams with a firm hand and to expect them to perform to the best of their ability, or even to rebuke staff if someone is continually underperforming and bringing everyone else down. Yet leadership should come via inspiration and encouragement, and intimidation and blow-ups should not be mistaken for passion - whether this means chucking pots and pans across the kitchen, or picking on someone just because they are new and young, weak, or of a different gender, race, religion or sexual orientation.

Wanting success is one thing, but is it really worth leaving behind a litany of bullied and psychologically - sometimes even physically - bruised colleagues and staff in one's wake?

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, one in five UK employees is affected by bullying and harassment. The misery and stress caused by bullying can be devastating, and it can have far-reaching repercussions, not just on the person being bullied, but on those around him and his family. Unofficial estimates put the annual cost of stress-related illness in the workplace at several billion pounds.

For an operator, tribunal and court cases, the risk to public image and the loss of staff and customer confidence can be crippling.

"Some chefs and restaurateurs mistakenly perceive what they do as a life-and-death situation," says Vivek Singh, executive chef of the Cinnamon Club. "Working in the kitchen can mean long hours in hot conditions and often for a paltry salary. The last thing one needs is a bully in there.

"As a chef at a top-end restaurant, I have to ensure that my staff deliver the work I expect from them by being motivated, enthused, excited and engaged - not through fear."

However, Singh says that shouting at someone if they are not performing during service and giving them "a verbal bollocking" does not count as bullying. "If someone continues to let the team down and can't perform," he says, "then I will ask them to leave service and talk it through with me afterwards."

Martin Couchman, deputy chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, agrees.

"To some degree, if someone loses their temper or gets somewhat flustered during the highly pressurised service time, it is understandable," he says. "But whether it's in the kitchen or front of house, where a manager or head waiter is victimising and bullying someone just because they are a little slow or can't speak English properly, that is entirely unacceptable."

Couchman warns that bullying sends out the wrong signal for the hospitality sector and has an adverse impact on youngsters who might want to enter the industry. He says: "They can easily misunderstand that shouting, swearing and being thuggish and intimidating is part and parcel of what it takes to be a success in the industry. Employers need to ensure that bullying is stamped out the moment it comes to their attention."

Neil Crossley, a partner at law firm DLA Piper, notes that the impact bullying has on the person on the receiving end, and how it makes them feel, can result in people leaving the industry.

"In a kitchen environment," notes Crossley, "some hard language and posturing may be seen as de rigueur by most of the brigade. But to another person, it could easily destroy their confidence and leave them distraught, with feelings of low self-worth. They can then either put up with it, which may make the situation worse, or report it. Some people take the attitude that, rather than doing something about it, they would much rather leave their job."

Crossley explains that these days, under the statutory regulations relating to disputes between the employer and employee, before the latter brings a claim, they must have brought a grievance to their employer. If that grievance has not been addressed by the employer and a proper process followed, the damages for unfair dismissal can be inflated by 50%.

"An employer is making the situation much worse and adding to the employee's suffering if he hasn't addressed the issue of bullying at his workplace," Crossley says. "Tribunals and courts take this form of secondary victimisation extremely seriously."

The good news, though, as far as Singh is concerned, is that the situation is getting better.

"Overall, while bullying is still prevalent in the workplace, I think things have improved in the hospitality sector," he says. "The law, as well as HR departments, have become a lot more aware that bullying and unruly behaviour cannot be tolerated. Any chef who thinks he can bully his way around must adapt."

How to prevent bullying

The employee

  • Confront the bully, but remain calm and confident. Tell the person that their behaviour is unacceptable and that your work is being made difficult due to their actions.

  • Don't suffer in silence seek help. Speak to colleagues you can confide in to see if they are also being victimised by the same person. Also, keep a diary with a record of the incidents, with relevant dates and what you are going through. This can be used as evidence to support your claim.

  • If you are member of a union, tell your union rep what you are going through and get advice and support.

  • Tell your line manager that you are being bullied. If that doesn't work, or if it's your manager who is bullying you, inform a more senior manager to see if the matter can be dealt with adequately.

  • If all else fails, a formal complaint might be the only option remaining, but ensure that a grievance procedure has been followed.

The employer

  • As a hospitality operator, the reputation of your business counts for everything. Having a workplace bully in your business can cause tension among staff and drive employees away.

  • Ensure that you take any complaints of bullying seriously, regardless of whom they are being made against. The longer you let the matter fester, the more it is likely to damage your business.

  • Have proper procedures in place for handling complaints of bullying.

  • Remember, bullying can be the cause of a great deal of stress and low morale, which in turn results in low work output and lost time.

  • Employment tribunals and courts take cases of bullying and harassment seriously. They also set high standards. If you don't deal with bullying at your workplace properly, you might find yourself paying damages in thousands of pounds.

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