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There is the mentality in the industry that it’s all about having thick skin if you want to make it.

The Crisis in Your Restaurant's Back-of-House

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Allowing harassment to take place can ruin your business, no matter how great the food or service.
By Gretchen Van Vlymen November 2018 Expert Insights

Harassment in the workplace is prevalent across the restaurant industry, but it’s not just the front-of-house staff like servers and bussers to worry about. It’s happening with back-of-house staff, too, but restaurants aren’t armed to handle and prevent harassment among this group of employees. It requires a different approach to target harassment in the back of house as opposed to front-of-house. Below is why it’s so difficult and prevalent in back-of-house and how to prevent it in the future.

Why it’s a problem:

Back-of-house staff don’t have the same support. Oftentimes, if there is a server that is being harassed they go to the general manager, or assistant manager who have been trained to deal with HR issues/employee personnel issues. With back of house folks, like a sous chef or prep cook, they aren’t close with the GM in the way a traditional bartender or server may be. They may be going to their manager, often the executive chef, who hasn’t had any training on harassment or people issues. They are high-level chefs who are creative people who are used to being in the culinary world.

Because back of this, back of house staff often don’t know where to go or who to turn to if they have an experience with harassment, so they end up going online and trying to figure it out on their own, which often means a lawsuit.

They work long hours in tight spaces. Back of house staff typically work really long hours with one another in close circles. The physical workspace is small with tight kitchens, walk-in-coolers, small hallways. If someone is having a problem, it’s hard to escape or know where to go because staff are constantly brushing by each other, walking food and hot plates or dishes in a closed environment. This could lead to uncomfortable situations if people aren’t acting appropriate and staff haven’t been trained correctly.

There can be a language barrier. For back of house folks, English is often not the first language for them. When harassment trainings are done in English (which they almost always are), they don’t get the full benefit of the training and may even miss some of the key points because they can’t understand it. Additionally, most employee handbooks and policies are in English, too. Because of this, back-of-house staff may not even recognize what they’re doing is wrong or don’t think they’re being held responsible because training was in English.

Kitchen department has been traditionally male dominated. There naturally are more men in kitchen environments and while restaurants and people in the industry are working to change that, there is still some work to do. There is the mentality in the industry that it’s all about having thick skin if you want to make it. This could lead women to feel like they have to put up with certain things in their workplace, which isn’t true. Restaurants should be giving women more of an outlet to talk and voice concerns.

Solutions:

Have a back-of-house HR liaison or lead. This could be a sous chef or executive chef, but could also be someone who is specifically paying attention to back of house. Whether it’s an assistant GM that is solely responsible for back of house or designating someone else as a representative responsible for this group of employees, it’s important they have someone to go to and know exactly who that person is and how they can help. Restaurants should think about putting someone bilingual into the role to avoid any language barriers.

More trainings and policies in Spanish. The harassment trainings should be done in both Spanish and English. Or, at least have someone who is bilingual translating it as it is going on.

Hire and highlight more women. Restaurants should make a more concerted effort to hire women and make them feel comfortable with zero-tolerance policies. Additionally, they should Incorporate more women into the interview process, so they have more of a say in who their coworkers may be. This also allows candidates to have a better understanding of who may be in the kitchen with them. 

Include values-based questions in the interview. Make sure you’re hiring people with morals and the right values from the beginning. Ask questions like “tell me about a time you dealt with a situation that challenged your morals.” This will give insight into their emotional intelligence moral compass. What do they deem to be important? Where do they draw the line? 

The bottom line is that no matter how famous or great a restaurant’s chef may be, allowing harassment to take place and not taking all of the measures required to prevent and end it is not only illegal, but is bad for business.

Gretchen Van Vlymen, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is the Vice President of Human Resources at StratEx, a human resources software and consulting firm specializing in the restaurant industry. Van Vlymen oversees all delivery and execution of StratEx's team of HR consultants and benefits administration. She ensures employers are armed with sound advice to reduce liability associated with all facets of day-to-day HR.