How is the Restaurant Industry Dealing With Sexual Harassment in the Kitchen?

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It’s an open secret that women in the restaurant industry are sexualized. The scenarios run the gamut of irritating suggestions — many of the women interviewed off the record have been asked to wear more make-up, tighter shirts or shorter skirts while others have been subject to cringe-worthy accounts of sexual abuse. The latter reached a new low in June when a 24-year-old pastry chef at Weslodge restaurant in Toronto filed an application with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, seeking $225,000 in damages and formal apologies from three men with whom she worked.

None of the allegations have been proven and the men accused have strongly denied them, but Kate Burnham, the woman behind the claim, went on record with the CBC to recount, in vivid detail, some of the things she allegedly put up with.

She talked about the cruel comments and explicit pictures. She said there was unwelcome fondling, bottom slapping, jacket ripping, and even face licking and hollandaise sauce spraying.
“It was unbearable,” she told Anna Maria Tremonti on CBC’s The Current. Though she said she wanted to leave for nearly two years, she feared she would be threatened by superiors, as others were who had tried to leave before her. She claimed they were told they would never find as much as another dishwashing job if they did.

So she stayed, first moving to the morning shift and then, when things got worse, cutting back to two shifts on weekends.

The breaking point came one morning when she was getting changed in the co-ed locker room. The sous chef allegedly snuck up behind her and unclasped her bra, which fell to the floor. Allegedly, he then laughed at her as she struggled to get dressed in front of him. “When I was angry for the rest of the day, he came and told me I was on ‘thin ice’ and that I had ‘an attitude problem’,” she claimed.

Days later, she quit. “I decided no amount of money is worth this; no job is worth this; and no promise of success is worth this,” she told CBC’s Tremonti. More troubling, Burnham expressed doubts about whether or not she would be able to find another job as a chef now that she’s come forward with such allegations. “I don’t think anyone wants to hire a whistleblower,” she said. Tremonti paused. “And this is what you want to do with your life?” “More than anything,” she replied. (At press time, Burnham agreed to a settlement).

It’s difficult to get a handle on exactly how big a problem sexual harassment is in the restaurant industry. The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal agency doesn’t track complaints such as Burnham’s, but assistant registrar Arshad Alli speculates that based on the numbers that are tracked, there are between 10 and 25 sexual assault cases in the hospitality industry each year. If that’s accurate, Alli said those figures haven’t changed very much in the past several years.

Shivani Marx, director of HR, Drake Hotels Properties and general manager at Toronto’s Drake Hotel concurs. “I’ve had HR roles in several sectors, from financial services, not-for-profit arts to hospitality, and have found that across the board, reporting rates of such behaviour is very low.  This makes it hard to decipher the prevalence.”

For this reason, these numbers do not begin to capture the extent of the problem — not only because the problem may be very significant (which is difficult to determine, objectively) but because the problem itself suppresses discussion. According to the Ontario Women’s Directorate, a Toronto-based government agency, 90 per cent of sexual assaults perpetrated by someone other than a spouse (such as, a colleague) are not reported to the police. There are a number of reasons for this but, ultimately, it boils down to the fact that most women feel ashamed and stigmatized by speaking out. When a male employee is being harassed, that fear of stigmatization also comes into play.

But Burnham’s allegations have broken things open. Several other female restaurant employees have since come forward and this has apparently prompted serious soul-searching among restaurateurs in Canada’s largest city. For example, Ivy Knight, a Toronto-based writer and former cook recently made allegations in the Toronto Star that she was physically assaulted by a chef in the kitchens of Mildred Pierce when she worked there in 2002.

But is the problem really more prevalent today or are women simply coming forward more often? According to the Drake’s Marx, “Channels for reporting unlawful behaviour have improved over the years, with the increase of safe, non-retaliatory methods of speaking to managers, HR and fellow colleagues about workplace conditions.” This, she says, in addition to the ability to hear of similar experiences via community-based portals on social media, has made people feel less and less that their experience is unique or something to be tolerated. “I think we’re hearing about it more, which is driving the creation of industry-wide policies and protocols, which, I can only hope, will improve work environments and decrease unacceptable behaviour,” she says.

Regardless, it’s clear the allegations are fuelling dialogue. “I’ve had some conversations with restaurants over the last few weeks and people are taking this issue seriously,” acknowledges Lorraine Trotter, dean of George Brown’s Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts in Toronto. “What I hear is a serious commitment to making sure we have the elements in place that make our kitchens safe and comfortable.”

But how safe and comfortable are the industry’s kitchens, really? After all, as Bruce McAdams, assistant professor at the University of Guelph’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, and a former restaurant manager at Oliver & Bonacini, says, “Working long hours in close quarters is a recipe for disaster when it comes to workplace harassment.”

“There is this behaviour in kitchens where the men are seen as brutes and the women are seen as the charming front of the house,” says Sophia Banks, a transgender woman who worked as a cook and barback at The Beaver, a Toronto bar and restaurant. She claims the industry has been built on exploitative practices and, as a result, a culture has developed around that. There’s a parallel, she says, around long work shifts without a break and vacation or time-and-half-pay on holidays is rare. “If they’re not going to pay you a legal wage, they’re probably not going to respect you as a human being.”

There’s also the age-old “boy’s club” mentality with which to contend. After all, it’s only been in the past decade that an increasing number of women have entered the ranks of chef. Even today, it’s still not the norm to have women helm the kitchen, although according to Stats Canada, women comprise 61 per cent of the Canadian restaurant workforce. Ironically, it seems that one set of bad behaviour has begot another. Thirty years ago, the stereotype existed of the stern chef who ruled the kitchen with an iron fist, screaming and bullying the brigade into submission.

“There’s a movement where food is treated as holy, but the industry seems to forget about putting the same care and respect to the employees as they do towards the ingredients,” says McAdams. “How do we change the conditions?”

Many say it’s a question of culture. According to Michael Steh, executive chef of Toronto-based Chase Hospitality Group, “It stems from the top down. Regardless of the industry, if those in leadership positions turn a blind eye, don’t take it seriously or are part of the problem, it will spread like a cancer.” Steh says it’s all about “Awareness, transparency and zero tolerance.” At his company, “All the tools are in place and are legislated through workplace legislation to be discussed, posted and part of onboarding any new employee.”

At the Toronto-based Restaurants Canada, president Donna Dooher, says “Restaurants are among the most diverse workplaces in Canada, and their employees must be able to do their jobs without being harassed or judged. We have tools and information to help our members ensure their workplaces are safe, respectful and harassment-free zones, and to make employees aware of their workplace rights. Posting a code of conduct in a visible place and reviewing it on a regular basis as a team is one of many steps along the way to reinforcing the kind of behaviour that makes all employees feel safe.”

But Steh is quick to add all the policies in the world won’t help, if they don’t have teeth. “Whether it’s enforced is a different story. The smaller the shop the more likely these types of procedures are likely not to be trained. We have grown from zero to close to 500 employees in two years. We take it seriously, and have done so from day one. We are a company that employs people who want to be the future of the hospitality industry in North America. We don’t pick and choose if they are men or women and we are an equal-opportunity employer.”

Guelph’s McAdams, believes independent operators are at a disadvantage. “Smaller restaurants don’t have HR teams at their disposal and many lack formal HR policies. But, there are certain resources smaller operators can use to get ahead. An HR consultation is not a bad idea to form a new policy,” he explains.

“Have a written code of conduct for the work environment stating that the work environment is harassment-free. All [employees] should sign a copy to agree to terms upon hiring.” He also recommends hosting formal orientations with new staff members and emphasizing the importance of a safe space. “Do not make this the last thing you speak about — it’s important so speak about it and treat it as a priority.” McAdam also urges managers to “Deal with issues including jokes, innuendo and jock talk as soon as they occur.”

Despite the recent allegations, many don’t necessarily believe the problem is pervasive. “If anything, I think it’s on the way out,” says Steh. “As women in the workplace continue to take over what used to be set as men-only positions, especially in leadership roles, it will continue to remove itself. But I don’t think it will ever go away.” He points out that he’s worked alongside his wife for almost 15 years now, and “she has a low tolerance for bullshit as do I; it just never happens.” Interestingly, at Colette restaurant, one of four restaurants his company owns and operates, four of the five cook positions are held by women, and the restaurant’s GM is also a woman.

Though the problem clearly exists, many continue to treat the subject like a live grenade. In an interview broadcast on CBC’s Metro Morning earlier this summer, Jen Agg, proprietor of Toronto’s Black Hoof restaurant lambasted industry professionals in the city for not supporting her impromptu social-media campaign to bring awareness to the issue. It began as a series of tweets suggesting the Weslodge incident was a symptom of a larger problem. It culminated in the launch of a conference organized and named by Agg herself called Kitchen Bitches: Smashing the Patriarchy One Plate at a Time. The sold-out conference took place last month in Toronto and attracted more than 200 to hear a panel of chefs who have recognized and become fed up with the issue.

Agg grilled panellists on the issue of how to run a kitchen in a way that meets the restaurant’s needs while still taking care of the staff. “We need to find ways to make the kitchen a safer place — if we took better care of our staff then we might keep people from exploding.” Everyone makes mistakes every day and say things they don’t mean, she acknowledges, “but we as leaders have to nip it in the bud.”

According to Agg, there are a couple reasons why the problem — to whatever extent it does exist — has been allowed to persist. One is that most employees don’t know the policies. It’s unclear how many restaurants have policies to protect their employees but, according to Chris Zielinski, executive chef at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment in Toronto, it’s less common among small restaurants, many of which may believe the collegial trust and respect within a tight-knit team eliminates the need for one.

The second reason has to do with the culture. Soft-skills training are earned on the job in an environment that is often hierarchical. It rewards those who toe the line. This causes problems when that model of operations is applied within a restaurant where women don’t feel they are taken seriously (such as the one Burnham alleged existed at Westlodge).

But like many other workplaces of the past 20 years, that’s beginning to change. GBC’s Trotter says that female enrolment at George Brown’s culinary program has risen dramatically in recent years and is now at the point where there are nearly as many female students as there are male students.

“Our chef-school classes are now almost 50/50, which is an amazing statistic,” she says. The program has also placed a greater emphasis on soft-skills training in its First Impressions course, which has been designed to foster a sense of professionalism among graduates. “That educational experience on the soft-skills side is part of what helps students distinguish themselves,” Trotter explains. “The core skills have to be there but the soft skills are equally important.”

She also points out that as a result of the incident at Weslodge, George Brown has begun to link to its own sexual harassment policy in each of its course outlines, just to make it absolutely clear its students know what is and isn’t acceptable. That policy is fairly comprehensive. It was last reviewed in March and outlines its complaint processes and the rights of each student. It also contains instructions on what to do if a student has been involved in an incident, as well as a glossary that clearly defines terms such as coercion, stalking and consent. “It’s a small thing,” Trotter says, “and there’s no doubt that there’s more that we can do.”

Hugh Acheson agrees: there is more than can be done — by everyone. The Top Chef judge, and Canadian-born owner of four restaurants in Georgia, and a speaker at last month’s Kitchen Bitches conference, believes the first order of business is defining exactly what constitutes harassment. “Because honestly, the people who respond with a ‘shrug, shrug, whatever’ usually don’t know what harassment is and that’s one of the big problems.”

Acheson argues more needs to be done within restaurants themselves to ensure employees know what constitutes appropriate conduct. It can’t be a 65-page set of terms and conditions that employees sign off on without understanding it. It needs to be clearly defined. Once that happens, restaurant workers and management, in particular, can be held accountable. “We just need to put our foot down and say, ‘no, that’s not cool…ever.” At Restaurants Canada, Brenda O’Rielly, past chair of the board, spearheaded a recent roundtable initative with Kellie Leitch, the federal Minister of Status of Women to bring women from the hospitality industry together to discuss both harassment and career advancement.

Acheson acknowledges that the industry has evolved from the stereotypes of years past, where “coke-addled waiters and cooks” would take out their stress on fellow employees without consequence. “I think those are few and far between now. There’s an authenticity and realness to the industry that’s more palpable than ever,” he says. That authenticity is important. Women don’t need protection, Acheson stresses, they need equivalence and respect, both of which he thinks may be the keys in breaking the cycle of apathy in the kitchens where abuse continues to take place.

Certainly, education is crucial for affecting any cultural change but any chef or server will attest to the fact that tenets of professionalism and respect sometimes fall by the wayside when you’re an hour into a hellish service.

That’s where an official policy may become useful. “Even if you’re just a guy with six employees you still need to have some sort of policy,” says Zielinski. “You need to have some measurement of acceptable behaviour.”

At MLSE, a company with more than 500 full-time staff and more than 1,700 event staff, these policies are critical. They present a unified model within a diverse workforce.

Employees who come on sign off on the code of conduct — a notably thick stack of papers, Zielinski emphasizes — and for those who violate it, the consequences can involve termination. “It could be just that simple, but I know in the past there have been people who have had to speak to police if they’ve gone over the line,” Zielinski says. He is quick to point out, however, this rarely happens. “There’s so much preemptive on this end that as soon as things seem out of sorts you’ve got a thousand eyes on you.”

Of course, the level of oversight differs across institutions and within these environments where high pressure, long hours and ‘oui chef’ deference is the norm, the risks quickly bubble up. None that excuses bad behaviour amongst colleagues, but perhaps it offers a chance to better understand the places where it still happens.

As Steh affirms, incidents like the Weslodge one just remind us that “the issue still exists and that we need to continue to be proactive as a culture, not an industry, to make people understand it’s not acceptable anywhere or anytime.”

Adds Marx, “At an organizational level, it’s a two-pronged approach. Nail down your company values and invest in the tools to communicate them during your hiring/selection and onboarding process and reinforce them every day — not in a book or a manual, but in how managers communicate with staff, how you manage your teams and how you deal with any issues that arise in your environment.”

At the end of the day, as Chase’s Steh says, “It’s all about awareness and ensuring there is an open-door policy for any issue.”

Volume 48, Number 7

Written By: Tristan Bronca and Rosanna Caira with files from Amy Bostock and Jackie Sloat-Spencer 

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