#MeToo: How I Failed Women in the Restaurant Industry

There is little disagreement in the hospitality industry that we have a problem with sexual harassment. The situations with John Besh and Mario Batali are no exceptions, and a clear example of how it can all go wrong.

But, how did it all get so bad? The easy answer is unequal power dynamics and the objectification of women (and men) by people with that power. All of this is exacerbated by a culture of tolerance surrounding behavior that when exposed is obviously repugnant -- and many times illegal.

Here’s the thing -- it’s all my fault!

How? Well, anyone that has been in a position of power and has tolerated the bad behavior of others or rationalized their own actions is absolutely to blame. And I am horrified to acknowledge that describes me.

This explosion of revelations has forced me to review my own career as a restaurant manager/owner/operator, and the findings have unearthed a painful truth. I am guilty on all counts and I’m honestly not sure what to do to set things right.

To start, I want to share what my introspection has revealed, and what I think it says about our industry and ultimately my own character.

Part of the industry’s DNA

I started in the restaurant business at 22 years old, a recent college graduate with visions of grandeur on how I would conquer the industry. My first couple of years, I ran a fast casual restaurant. I was working 100 hours a week for $19k a year. There was so much to learn and very little time away from the building. This meant the only people I was regularly exposed to were the staff and guests. Well, guests are only there for a few minutes, but managers spend many hours in a high stress environment with their teams. As with many people, I ended up in a romantic relationship with a staff member.

While I believed it was consensual at the time, now I am not sure, nor will I likely ever know. However, that’s not the only issue that existed with that relationship. It’s not like we were able to keep a secret, so the entire team knew that we were intimate. Did this create a hostile environment for the other staff members? Maybe. It’s not a huge leap for someone to believe that special treatment comes only if you are submitting yourself to the boss’s whim. At the time, I was convinced it was not a factor. Now, I can’t be sure, and I likely never will be.

From that gig, I worked for and developed a chain of upscale billiard clubs. For six years, I lead 200 employees (60% women) in a nightclub environment that was sexually charged with lots of alcohol. Again, situationally, I was working shoulder to shoulder with folks that I had power over. The women were cocktail servers and required to wear skimpy outfits and we had almost no female managers. While I can’t consciously remember not elevating women in our organization, we clearly didn’t. That meant that the people with power in our organization were all men. By definition this is an inequity that lead to problems -- and we sure had them.

The company was sued several times for sexual harassment in the early ‘90s. One of the cases was surrounding our uniform policy and I was singled out because I had instructed an individual on our cocktail staff to “flaunt it, cuz you’ve got it.”

I’m sure why that was offensive and caused a hostile environment is obvious now, but the lines were blurrier then. Maybe because of my youth and inexperience, maybe because our culture wasn’t quite where we are today. Either way, this experience awakened me to the realities of work place decorum. We changed our policy to a uniform that we provided, and we better outlined our expectations about appearance and hygiene for both female and male staff members.

Growing pains

While I am not defending anything I ever did that hurt another human being, it took the litigation to properly codify for me the “why” in changing our culture and my own approach. This was coupled with marrying someone who was in the business and now feeling a sense of responsibility for her well-being. No question, if she were harassed in any of the forms that were tolerated back then, I would have been extremely upset. So it was the combination of education (although enforced) and empathy that allowed me to evolve my understanding of what makes for harassment or a hostile environment.

Every one of us has a mother, sister or partner they love and would be angry if they were mistreated or assaulted. That should be all the empathy any one needs. However, if you require more inspiration, do a quick hashtag search of #MeToo and you will have plenty more examples. While every case is different, the reality of the power dynamic is ubiquitous in all of them.

It’s a heart break to me that it’s taken this many women being hurt over such a sustained period of time for this conversation to finally emerge in a truly transformative way. However, it has finally emerged.

The real question is, what are we going to do about it?

For me it started with acknowledging the behaviors and experiences reviewed in this post. My guilt, for them and any behavior that caused pain, is real and my commitment to addressing it is resolute.

Consequently, we are proud to announce that The Rail is working directly with the folks at DefendYourself.org to bring resources to our subscribing operators that support them in combatting work place harassment from any source. DefendYourself.org provides training and policy support to operators in our industry, so you have best practices to follow in your own efforts to eradicate this problem.

For our part we will continue this discussion and the provide resources so our readers can make thoughtful choices about their leadership and protect the vulnerable on their teams from harassment, intimidation and assault. We look forward to facilitating this conversation until the culture catches up in our industry and all people are free to work without fear of a hostile or dangerous environment.