Gretchen Van Vlymen, head of HR at StratEx, a human resources software and consulting firm focused on the restaurant industry, says having a code of conduct is vital, not so much saying people can’t express their personal views but that they must do so in a way that meets this code.
“That means showing respect for co-workers and customers and if they are going to express opinions, to do so in a professional way and to respect the opinions of others, even when they differ from their own,” she says.
Van Vlymen notes that even if someone overhears customers talking about a subject they are passionate about, they shouldn’t butt in.
“Restaurants should drive home the fact: is this really the most appropriate time to discuss politics? You are a server and have a job to do and you should focus on giving your customers the best service you can give them. Diving into a heated political conversation is not doing anybody any good,” Van Vlymen says.
Incidents Do Happen
In 2011, a waitress was fired from an Outback Steakhouse in Crystal Lake, Illinois, claiming it was because she was wearing a bracelet advocating for the Tea Party, and customers complained to her boss, though the restaurant claims her dismissal had nothing to do with it. Angioni says that could have led to a messy legal fight if rules weren’t in place.
And a Rhode Island state legislator who worked as a waitress for Classic Café in Providence, Rhode Island, was fired after owner Raymond Burns warned her that political talk was interfering with her shift, and he saw a scathing review online because of it, according to a story that appeared in the Associated Press. Having rules written down about such talk backed up his decision.
Gavin Coleman, owner of The Dubliner, an Irish restaurant across the street from the Capitol in Washington, D.C., has a steady stream of politicians and politically minded customers coming in, and understands the importance of keeping his staff in line, and has developed a protocol to keep political talk at bay.
“We make a point of not engaging in any political talk. We are a family restaurant and we have a conversation with all of our employees about who our customers are and what we expect of them,” he says. “I by no means am trying to squash anyone’s rights, but we make it clear our customers experience should be dictated by them and not by us.”
Over the years, everyone from President Barrack Obama to Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil to some of the leading Republicans and lobbyists have stopped in for a bite, and Coleman makes sure that all conversations between staff and patrons are respectful.
“We’ve had all sides of the political spectrum and talking views doesn’t serve you well in any regard. Agreeing with them or disagreeing with them would be alienating us with some other groups,” he says. “I tell my staff we don’t want to be known for catering to one section or demographic.”
Coleman recalls an incident where someone was drinking at the bar and tried to engage the bartender in talk about immigration issues.
“Political debates often come about when people are drinking and I tell my staff to keep it to quick answers, don’t engage, and don’t argue,” he says. “If they need to, they can remove themselves from the situation and I will step in.”