Beginning with Hollywood and then moving into politics, media, and tech, allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment have prompted an uproar as the nation grapples with a deep-rooted but often avoided topic. And the restaurant industry isn’t beyond reprimand. At press time, accusations are swirling around such notable chefs as John Besh and Mario Batali.
As abhorrent as these revelations are, they do present an opportunity for all industries to do better. “We can make an extremely positive change so that in five years or 10 years, we’re talking about how proud we are that the industry does not tolerate this,” says Matthew Mabel, president and founder of Dallas-based restaurant consultancy Surrender.
For beverage director Jacyara de Oliveira, fostering fair and safe work environments within the restaurant industry is a top priority. Beyond her standard responsibilities at Chef John Manion's El Che Bar and La Sirena Clandestina in Chicago, de Oliveira runs special training seminars through the mentorship and career-coaching initiative, The Sisterhood Project. She has focused on empowering and protecting women in the restaurant and bar space, which, as the recent deluge of accusations reminds, is a very real problem.
In the training sessions, de Oliveira and her teammates developed a set of principles that would become guidelines for staff behavior. “They became the mantra and protocol the staff referenced in any instances of trauma,” she says. First, de Oliveira says, restaurants must cultivate active—rather than reactive—behavior, and that starts with creating a positive culture. Owners and managers can encourage communal support and group goals rather than competitive individual ones.
Both formal and informal training is also a fundamental part of necessary cultural and institutional change. Carolyn Richmond is a New York City–based attorney, chair of the hospitality practice group at Fox Rothschild, and counsel for the New York City Hospitality Alliance. Since last fall, she has witnessed an uptick in clients requesting sexual harassment training. As of December, she was conducting about three training sessions on sexual harassment per week.
“I like to train management regularly,” Richmond says. “I’m very direct, very truthful about their obligations under the law, what they need to look for, their own liability, protecting themselves, and protecting their staff.”
Training hourly employees presents more of a challenge. Most sexual harassment and diversity training videos are sterile to the point of being funny, Richmond says. Training needs to begin during the onboarding process with regular follow-ups in staff meetings, management meetings, and repeated online training every six months or so.
For de Oliveira, fostering conversations is one of the main points of sexual harassment and diversity training at any level. Training sessions can provide a structure and space for conversations people usually shy away from.
It can also be a good idea to bring in outside groups that specialize in making these issues more accessible. For example, one of de Oliveira’s go-to organizations is Healing to Action in Chicago, which specializes in education on gender-based violence in the restaurant industry. She credits its work with building her own understanding of the issues faced by women and gender non-conforming individuals.
Education may be especially effective in a restaurant setting where, Richmond says, the majority of bad behavior is not malicious. A fair amount of sexual harassment in restaurants comes from people who don’t understand how their jokes can be hurtful or who are young and professionally inexperienced.
Richmond advises restaurants with more than about 75 employees to develop a well-trained and resourced HR department that is empowered by the top of the company. Richmond also advises restaurants to invest in outside investigators should certain types of complaints arise. After all, it can be harder to investigate a claim involving a high-level manager.
Ensuring proper pathways are in place can empower women to come forward, de Oliveira says. “Women are socialized in various ways that make it difficult for us to bring up issues of sexual violence. More often than not, we believe that it’s somehow our fault.”
To women who have been sexually harassed in the workplace, de Oliveira advises them to reach out to other women and look to national organizations like Restaurant Opportunities Center for judgment-free resources and communities. This moment is an opportunity for positive change, but, she says, “It is a sad and undeniable truth.”