Restaurant harassment – ‘not threatening’ based on male experience

We found that most customers test the waters before escalating and that women have a canny sixth sense for unwanted attention…but…when they tried to report it to male managers, they were often ignored because the incidents seemed unthreatening through a male lens.

restaurant-harassment-color-codeThere has been a rash of nasty male chefs in the news – Mario Batali, John Besh, Ken Friedman – but here is a story of a female chef,  Erin Wade, a co-founder of a mac and cheese restaurant in Oakland called Homeroom, who solved a harassment problem at her restaurant.

It started when she got a flood of emails from staff members titled “harassment”, asking for a meeting with her. She says she was terrified.

The catalyst was a customer — ­ a father of four who had put his hand up the shirt of a busser clearing his family’s table. The busser was so stunned she didn’t report it, but the event sparked a flood of reactions from staff members who’d had similar experiences. At our meeting, women shared stories about harassment from customers and said that when they tried to report it to male managers, they were often ignored because the incidents seemed unthreatening through a male lens.

I went home and started bawling. I couldn’t believe this was happening right under my nose. We reconvened for a problem-solving session: We knew that we had to create something that didn’t rely on men making judgment calls on women’s stories, because it was clear that system was failing all of us.

We decided on a color-coded system in which different types of customer behavior are categorized as yellow, orange or red. Yellow refers to a creepy vibe or unsavory look. Orange means comments with sexual undertones, like certain compliments on a worker’s appearance. Red signals overtly sexual comments or touching, or repeated incidents in the orange category after being told the comments were unwelcome.

When a staff member has a harassment problem, they report the color — “I have an orange at table five” — and the manager is required to take a specific action. If red is reported, the customer is ejected from the restaurant. Orange means the manager takes over the table. With a yellow, the manager must take over the table if the staff member chooses. In all cases, the manager’s response is automatic, no questions asked. (At the time of our meeting, all our shift managers were men, though their supervisors were women; something else we’ve achieved since then is diversifying each layer of management.)

In the years since implementation, customer harassment has ceased to be a problem. Reds are nearly nonexistent, as most sketchy customers seem to be derailed at a yellow or orange. We found that most customers test the waters before escalating and that women have a canny sixth sense for unwanted attention. When reds do occur, our employees are empowered to act decisively.

The color system is elegant because it prevents women from having to relive damaging stories and relieves managers of having to make difficult judgment calls about situations that might not seem threatening based on their own experiences. The system acknowledges the differences in the ways that men and women experience the world, while creating a safe workplace.

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