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Labor Law

Labor Law: Restaurant workers – You have a right to not be harassed by customers

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RTD Metro Business law columnist, Karen Michael.

“You look sexy today.” A customer said this to an 18-year-old female hostess at a restaurant in Richmond as she was handing the man a takeout order.

It’s hard enough to prevent harassment by co-workers or supervisors, but restaurant workers in particular endure harassment by customers as well.

Recently, my husband and I went to a local restaurant and sat at the bar. It was clear there was something going on based on the general demeanor of the two female bartenders. Then I noticed the man sitting alone at the end of the bar engaging in never-ending banter with these busy women.

He was trying to tell one bartender a long-winded story that ended with, “And I told him that I make more in one day than you make in a year.” He was interrupting them, demanding their attention and incessantly commenting on how they were making drinks. The women were taking heroic efforts to ignore him, and be nice to him, at the same time.

When he left, I asked one of them if he made her uncomfortable. She said he frequently comes to the restaurant, sits at the bar and flirts with the women. He frequently asks her on dates even though she has told him she has a boyfriend.

I asked her if her manager was aware that he made them uncomfortable. She said he was busy and she didn’t want to bother him with this. She said another man frequently comes in and does the same thing.

Employees who fear bothering their managers with customer misconduct is a common theme. One woman was working at a local restaurant when a customer came in at the end of the night. She asked if he wanted to pick out his steak and he replied, “No, but I’ll take you,” and put his hand on her hip. She backed away and told another server what happened but didn’t tell her manager because he was busy and she was worried he’d make a big deal about it. She said, “I didn’t know what to do.”

By law, employees have a right to a harassment-free workplace based on sex, race or any other protected characteristic not just by co-workers and supervisors, but also from customers, visitors, vendors or anyone doing business with the organization. The bartenders, for example, have a right to free from the sexual harassment they were experiencing from the customer. The customer was showing unwanted attention that made them extremely uncomfortable, not to mention less productive in their jobs.

Restaurant workers in particular have a difficult power imbalance because their pay relies upon the generosity of customers who tip them for their service. This creates a greater difficulty for employees to speak up. They don’t want to upset a customer and lose their livelihood. Restaurant managers need to be clear about expectations with workers and let them know that customer harassment will not be tolerated.

When an allegation of unwanted behavior occurs, the manager should discreetly talk to the customer and ask the customer to leave. There is no need for pubic embarrassment. The goal is for the conduct to stop.

A friend recently was publicly admonished by a restaurant manager when he was accused of harassing a server. He tapped her shoulder to get her attention to ask for the check. She accused him of harassment. She felt comfortable telling her manager (which is good), but the manager’s reaction was to go to the man’s table and in the presence of a table full of people accuse him of harassment, demanding he leave. The manager said he “watched the video camera” and that the customer harassed the server.

This was not the best way to handle the situation as the customer denied the harassment and felt publicly embarrassed for conduct he denied. When he asked to see the video then and later, he was ignored.

These cases sometimes come down to nuance and perception and for these reasons they should be addressed promptly but discreetly. There could be a misunderstanding. Regardless, if the employee feels uncomfortable due to the conduct of the customer, the manager needs to address it and make sure that the unwanted conduct ceases. The restaurant might lose a customer, but that’s better than losing an employee or even a lawsuit.

Employers in all industries, but particularly hospitality, should develop a playbook for how they will address customer misconduct and share the information with all employees. If the situation arises, management and employees will know what to expect and how to address it.

Karen Michael is an attorney and the president of Richmond-based Karen Michael PLC and author of “Stay Hired.” She can be reached at stayhired@stayhired.net.

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