By Sylvia Sage, programme director at Corporate Learning Solutions
Sexual harassment in the restaurant industry remains endemic, leading chef Asma Khan warned earlier this month.
Asma, a restauranteur who runs all-female kitchen Darjeeling Express in Soho, accused other women in hospitality of staying silent on the issue and urged them to speak up.
Harassment along with bullying and discrimination is rife within the whole hospitality industry. This year it has come under the spotlight and an All-Party Parliamentary Group was set up to gather evidence on how best to legislate to protect hospitality employees.
But while influential women speaking out to protect other women may help, it will not tackle the root cause of these issues.
So, how can hoteliers, restauranteurs and others running hospitality businesses create the culture change that is needed.
What constitutes harassment, bullying and discrimination?
First, they need to educate themselves and all their staff.
Harassment and bullying can be defined as conduct that makes someone feel intimidated or offended. Discrimination is “less favourable treatment of another person or persons”.
Harassment and discrimination are against the law in the UK, and this is particularly clear where conduct is considered intimidating, hostile or abusive, or related to any of nine protected characteristics defined by the Equality Act 2010, which include gender, disability, age, race, religion and sexual orientation.
Crucially, it is the impact of the behaviour rather than the intent that is important. A particular action might be considered harassment, even if the effect is unintended.
Senior managers must lead by example. Hospitality can be stressful, with long anti-social hours, and when those at the top are feeling the pressure, they are likely to pass this down. This results in a stressful, unhappy workplace which affects staff performance and, ultimately, the climate and success of the hotel, bar or restaurant.
Company bosses must ensure they treat all staff with respect and care, as this too will filter down. If they are feeling overwhelmed, they need to bring in more support. It is not an excuse to be uncivil.
Building positive values
The next step to tackling inappropriate behaviour is bringing staff together to agree upon shared values which fit the purpose of the business and foster mutual care and respect.
To do this, senior staff need to create a safe discursive environment in which everyone feels able to share their views. For real culture change to work, everyone at every level must be engaged and actively involved in the process. Only then will they embrace rather than resist the changes.
Bringing everyone together to put their ideas on the table helps to create a shared ‘pool of meaning’, as described in Crucial Conversations, by Kerry Patterson et al. It is an essential first ingredient for a more unified team. Such discussions also help to filter out any concerns and stressors that cause tension.
Where such shared values have been agreed, they must be clearly communicated so that everyone understands what they are uniting behind.
Better education on bullying, harassment, sexual harassment, abuse of authority and discrimination among staff should lead to a dramatic reduction in inappropriate behaviour.
But hotels, restaurants and other hospitality businesses must have clearly defined informal and formal steps to raise and address concerns as early as possible. Before situations escalate.
An open-door policy that makes senior managers available and approachable is vital – particularly in the case of smaller businesses that do not have dedicated HR teams.
If issues cannot be dealt with informally, management must take more formal steps to monitor and tackle the issue. Any complaint should be investigated, and all parties consulted in a sensitive and confidential manner, with appropriate support offered to the alleged victim.
Change for good
Proper long-term culture change cannot happen overnight. It cannot be rushed and it should not be attempted superficially as a tick-box publicity exercise. It is a steady process of re-education which will be worth the time and effort invested.
There is a vast and growing body of research which shows that humans can only reach their full potential when they feel happy and secure, and this applies to all aspects of life including work. So, happier staff means more effective staff leading to better business performance. In the case of hospitality, where customer service is so integral to the success or failure of the business, this is arguably even more vital.
Guests will not enjoy being served by miserable and stressed-looking individuals. Staff wellbeing is a worthy investment.