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Restaurant manager: “Sexual harassment rife in hospitality”

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Restaurant manager: “Sexual harassment rife in hospitality”

Following the accusations against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein and claims of inappropriate behaviour by MPs in Westminster, one former hospitality professional shares her account of the ordeals that drove her from the industry

Sexual assault and harassment isn’t a new thing and is widespread far beyond just the film industry and cases like Harvey Weinstein. In my previous career, as a female in the male-dominated industry that is hospitality for 12 years, I have nothing but empathy for all the women currently coming forward in Hollywood.

Countless times, I’ve had chefs from the safety of the other side of the pass asking and insinuating hideously inappropriate things to myself and my other young female colleagues. The notion of ownership, lewd comments and even more inappropriate behaviour was rife until I became a manager and put on a suit. I was no longer bait, but the protector of my female members of staff. Numerous times 16-year-old waitresses told me of being harassed by chefs on Twitter out of hours, and the questions they were being asked in the kitchen.

The night before my first shift at a hotel I was assaulted by the member of staff whose job I would be taking. I’ve made no secret of the ordeal I went through; I’ve fully believed in being open about it to encourage others to do the same and finally hold the perpetrators accountable for their actions.

I was to be staying in one of the hotel rooms for my first week until a space in staff accommodation was available and shadowing the hotel’s previous operations/restaurant manager for my first week. He took me out for dinner my first night to welcome to me to the hotel and show me around.

We had three courses of dinner and shared a bottle of wine. I’m not a prude and I’ve worked with chefs for 12 years, but the conversation that flowed made me feel very uncomfortable; heavily laden with sexual innuendos, heavily flirty. No matter how hard I tried to keep things as unassuming as possible, he managed to twist whatever I said into something creepy. If this was a normal situation I would have said things weren’t appropriate, and looking back maybe I should have. But given I’d just moved to a new job I didn’t want to rock the boat and seem like I was being difficult and stuck up from the offset. I also kept in mind that I’d only have to work with him for the next week and then I’d probably never have to see him again.

The meal ended and although I was tired, full and ready for bed, he insisted on going for another drink, so we headed to a bar. On the way there I was discussing my last job and the unnecessary drama that had played out. He felt this was an opportunity to try and hug me, in some form of comfort – but my story wouldn’t have warranted comfort from any of my closest family or friends, let alone a stranger who was my manager for the following week. I shrugged him off and asked for him to not touch me again. Reluctantly, we continued for another drink.

The bar was packed and we sat close to the bar on a small tall table on our own. At one point my shirt dress folded open more than it should due to how I was sat, revealing the inner slight edge of the cup of my bra. He saw that as an opportunity to lean over the table and grab at my boob, joking about how heavily padded it was – definitely not appropriate behaviour. Again, I told him to get off me.

Walking down the street back to the hotel, again he tried to hug me and again he was told to get off. Getting into the taxi, he tried to kiss me and again he was told no. He showed me to my hotel door and I did not let him in. He joked, a recurring joke he’d made throughout the night, that it didn’t matter if I locked my door as he had access to the master key. Feeling very awkward and uneasy after turning him away from my door, I took my make-up and jewellery off and got into bed. Tired from travelling and the new situation, I fell straight asleep.

In the morning I could tell something was wrong. I woke up to a ridiculous amount of missed calls from the guy I was dating, wondering if I’d got back to the hotel safely. The toilet lid and seat were both up. I then found a condom on the side, in its packet unused. But I don’t carry condoms and it definitely hadn’t been there before.

I texted the manager, asking what had gone on. “Nothing” was the original response, then with more digging and after drawing his attention to the condom, the toilet and “I didn’t consent to this”, more details followed which didn’t add up and then a hurried offer to meet me in the office to discuss things. He’d done something terrible to me and was trying to convince me I’d let it happen. I phoned the police and pulled a dresser in front of the door.

I was advised by the police to lock myself into the room. Waiting for them to arrive, I called the general manager of the hotel, who was offsite for a few days. He had been a friend and a well-respected manager at a venue I’d previously worked at. My calls weren’t answered so I was left to text. I kept it brief. An equally short response was received. I begged for a phone call, as did a friend who called him, asking for me to be called asap for support. It was three days later I received that phone call.

I returned to the hotel to work. Stubborn and driven, I wanted to prove to myself that if it was going to screw up, it’d be my own fault and not the fault of this horrid incident. I’d lost enough, I didn’t need to lose this opportunity of a lifetime for my career. On returning, the hotel hadn’t made any attempt to cover up the perpetrator’s name, clearly visible on training sheets, first aid sheets, cocktail specs… everywhere I went to hide if I needed five minutes’ head space, there it was staring me in the face.

The other staff were inevitably wary about how to approach me as they’d worked with him for two years, but some were a lot more cold and uncivil than others. The only other female on the team was in sales and also someone I shared staff accommodation with; I never got more than a grunt from her. The team of chefs were rude, unprofessional and most of the time ignored me – which makes it pretty difficult for a new restaurant manager to not only gain respect from her new team but also to do the fundamentals of her job. I had no support and dreaded going into each and every shift.

The hotel’s general reaction was of minimal care or support – very much doing the bare minimum to appease the situation. One thing that truly sticks out and is reflective of the general reaction to assault and harassment across the board – not just hospitality – is one thing that was said to me in my ‘welcome back’ meeting on returning: “We’re treating it as an outside hotel incident.”

At the time I was in too much shock to appreciate the gravity of these words. Over time it has played on me and I was going to just leave it. But in recent weeks, this one sentence has had me angrier than anything before.

I was a member of hotel staff. He was a member of hotel staff. I was up there to work. He was to be training me. The hotel had suggested he take me for a welcome meal the night before my first shift. It didn’t happen in staff accommodation, it happened in a hotel bedroom, which I later had to check guests into. They well and truly washed their hands of any kind of responsibility. The few preventative measures suggested by the police following my incident soon wavered and things were back to normal in their eyes before I left.

My next and final venue in hospitality wasn’t a great deal better. Within three weeks of being there I had walked out, not only broken from ridiculous rotas, poor team management and hideous understaffing, but because there was not an ounce of staff care. Finishing work at 4am on my own, I walked the five minutes to the room I was renting. Three guys cornered me, and if I hadn’t set off my panic alarm, things could have been very different. Inevitably shaken, at 7am and unable to sleep, due back in at 11am, I called the general manager explaining the situation, and asked if I could take the day off or, at worst, come in just for evening service. He knew of what had happened before. His response: ‘Whilst I understand your circumstance, please understand ours and that we will be left severely understaffed.’ Not even an enquiry about if I was OK. At 10am, I quit the job and I left hospitality for good.

Eight months later, the police reached the decision to drop all charges on the grounds there wasn’t sufficient circumstantial evidence which would lead to an 85% chance of conviction in court. The police were amazing during those months, and helped me put counselling into place. As deflating as it is there won’t be a conviction, I don’t have a horrid painful trial to go through which wouldn’t even guarantee conviction and I’m glad I can move on with my life.

I wish my experiences were anomalies. I know so many other females with similar experiences. I know hospitality isn’t alone in industries where this behaviour is rife, but as it stands very little is done to support women and to discourage this kind of harassment. All the men I’ve talked about had wives, girlfriends, sisters or daughters. How can so few be willing or wanting to stand up for women? I wonder how differently any of them would have reacted if it had happened to women in their lives? You wouldn’t accept this behaviour if it happened anywhere else, why here?

It is only through working together and looking out for each other that anything will change. Women and men together. Something has to change, and it has to start now. We deserve better than this.

How to handle harassment in the workplace
by Clare Gilroy-Scott, partner at commercial law firm Goodman Derrick

Harassment relating to sex in the workplace has been unlawful for many years. The prohibition, set out in the Equality Act 2010, includes unwanted conduct related to sex or conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating that person’s dignity, or otherwise creating a hostile or degrading environment for them. This also includes the person being treated less favourably for rejecting or submitting to such conduct.

“Conduct” can include any unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, whether verbal, non-verbal or physical. This could include sexual advances, sexual jokes or “banter”, sending emails with material of a sexual nature, touching and forms of sexual assault. A single incident can constitute harassment, and any acts done by an employee in the course of their employment will be treated as having been done by the employer, although a victim can also claim against the individual harasser. A tribunal will always look at the effect of the conduct on the employee and the surrounding circumstances of the matter. An employer has what is known as a statutory defence to such conduct by employees in their workplace – that they took “reasonable steps” to prevent such conduct.

Employers should make it clear to their employees that any form of harassment, sexual or otherwise, will not be tolerated in the workplace, and to ensure that sufficient safeguards are in place so that employees can voice their complaints or grievances without feeling disregarded or doubted.

Here’s a checklist of some measures employers can use to address harassment in the workplace:

TRAINING: Provide thorough training to all employees, including senior management, on appropriate behaviour at work;
AWARENESS: Ensure that employees are aware of how they can raise issues, and how they will be dealt with;
POLICIES: Implement an equal opportunities policy along with an anti-bullying and harassment policy;
REVIEW: Keep these policies under review and update regularly when appropriate;
COMMUNICATE: Make the policies known to all employees and provide necessary training;
CONSISTENCY: Apply the policies consistently;
TAKE ACTION: Address complaints promptly and ensure that disciplinary action is taken where appropriate.

Penny Moore, chief executive of Hospitality Action:
“Harassment is an issue within the hospitality industry. We’ve seen an increase in people approaching us for help who have experienced bullying and harassment at work, including sexual harassment, over the past 12 months. Bullying and harassment continues to be our most viewed factsheet. Whether or not this is because of the recent increased publicity around the subject, I couldn’t say. Our Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) provides confidential support, advice and assistance to anyone suffering from harassment or any other personal or work-related issues. To find out more about how we could help you or members of your team visit http://www.hospitalityaction.org.uk/what-we-do/employee-assistance-programme/ or you can email eap@hospitalityaction.org.uk.”

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