It was just a regular shift for Andreena Hill, a server in Calgary. Yet this ‘regular’ shift consisted of continual sexual harassment from her male manager. For months, Hill’s manager messaged her daily, pressuring her to sleep with him. Hill felt powerless because he would threaten to fire her if she didn’t comply.
“He used to offer me mornings off the next day if I came over to his house, spent the night, drank a bottle of wine or smoked a joint with him. This was super unprofessional, especially as a young girl. He was in his late thirties at the time,” says Hill.
Hill didn’t just experience sexual harassment from her manager. Hill, 23, has worked in several restaurants where she has dealt with sexual advances from customers.
“I’ve had customers blatantly grab me, or my butt — just really inappropriate [actions]. I really didn’t know what to do about it. I just went to my manager about it, and my manager was like ‘There’s nothing we can do, suck it up.’”
A pervasive problem
Hill is not alone. Whether harassment comes from management, coworkers or customers, severs tell the Calgary Journal they haven’t witnessed many improvements over time.
Ally Peddie, 30, has worked in the restaurant industry since she was 17. Peddie developed a thick skin over the years, but says sexual harassment still affects her.
“I had a male customer who was flirting with me all night,” says Peddie. “I kept saying, ‘No,’ and I kept being very aggressive [saying], ‘No, get away from me. You don’t have a chance. I’m bringing you your drinks and your food and that’s it.’ By the end of the night, he grabbed me by the throat.”
She says the customer was with a group of people who did nothing to intervene.
“It’s hard because in that situation I’m working for a tip. I remember his bill was quite large, so even myself, I didn’t say anything… I laugh it off now, but at the time it was very shocking. He thought [my behaviour] was flirtatious [and] my aggressiveness towards him in saying, ‘No,’ was me asking for it.”
It’s not only women servers who are saying, “no.” Joel, 23, has been bartending for five years. He doesn’t want his last name used for fear of repercussions.
He recalls a situation where he says he was pressured sexually.
“A bunch of older women wanted me to take my shirt off when I was at work and I didn’t want to… I said ‘I can’t do it, I’m not allowed, it’s not that kind of the place,’” he says.
“They went to the management and the management said it was okay. So evidently I had no fallback at this point, because the manager didn’t back me up…. And I ended up having to take off my shirt.”
Joel, Peddie and Hill say while they discussed the incidents with higher-ups, their employers brushed off their experiences as “normal.”
An industry breakthrough
Despite the reality of normalized sexual misconduct, one Calgary restaurant emphasizes that any form of unwanted sexual contact is unacceptable. Bridgette Bar opened its doors a few years ago and has implemented a no-tolerance policy in its code of conduct.
The broad code of conduct covers multiple areas, including respect, violence, harassment, discrimination and several other areas.
Amanda Jansen, general manager of Bridgette Bar, explains each employee is required to know the code completely.
“Based on reading through the code of conduct, [employees] have to answer a 12-page quiz on why this kind of treatment isn’t okay at work.”
Leah Aull works at Bridgette Bar as a server, where she says the management fully promotes awareness of workers’ rights and responsibilities.
“One of [Bridgette Bar’s] leading requirements is to be kind, which I think is just a basic [way] to treat each other in general. [They] haven’t built an environment where we’re accommodating and prioritizing the needs of men. [They’re] making sure the message is sent that we’re treating each other as human beings,” Aull explains.
Aull points out the biggest difference she’s seen in her workplace is the trust that management places in their staff — there’s no finger pointing if there’s been an altercation.
“It’s promoted that there’s open dialogue, and if you’re being harassed by a guest, the restaurant is comfortable in asking them not to come back. They don’t tolerate abuse of their staff, and that’s really clear,” says Aull.
Jansen adds, “We’ve had a few guests mistreat our staff for sure, or definitely say something, not so much physical [harassment] but definitely sexual harassment in terms of their language used. We’ve had to ask a couple people to leave the restaurant.”
Proportional representation of genders and identities within management is another defining factor of Bridgette Bar’s work environment — everything comes from the top down.
“We’ve got a woman running the show, which I think with being a female in the industry, it’s really important to see not just token representation, but real representation,” says Aull. “There’s a no ‘bro’ mentality. It’s not rewarded, it’s not promoted and that’s in all aspects again — [from the] front of house and back of house.”
The bigger picture
Despite some progress being made in the industry, Bruce Walker, head of the sex crimes unit in Calgary, recognizes sexual misconduct and violence are under-reported.
“We typically see a five per cent report rate with regards to sexual violence,” says Walker.
“You won’t see a lot of reporting for a multitude of reasons — it could involve friendships, or people could be afraid to lose their job.”
According to Harvard Business Review, 90 per cent of women and 70 per cent of men reportedly experience some form of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry in North America, which is more than any other professional industry.
Danielle Aubry, the CEO of Calgary Communities Against Sexual Assault (CCASA), calls the situation a great epidemic within the restaurant industry.
“If you ask me how many of our clients are assaulted or abused by people they know, I would say 85-90 per cent of the time. We see the restaurant industry falling within that [percentage],” Aubry explains.
“Typically these are scenarios where people know each other, and where there is a power and control dynamic.”
Servers stuck in profit-driven hierarchy
From her own experience, Peddie agrees this difference in power coerces servers into accepting this type of treatment.
“It just goes back to our whole societal hierarchy, where males have the power in any industry. So when [sexual misconduct] is normalized and when it comes from management, who are you supposed to go to? Who are you supposed to talk to? Especially if you’re the 17-year-old hostess and your manager is telling you, ‘This is what you need to do, this is how it is.’ They start them young.”
Aull points out the well-known mentality of “sex sells” is preventing other restaurants from cracking down on sexual misconduct.
“Sex shouldn't be used to sell food. In an environment that doesn't promote that sort of outdated service, bad behaviour and harassment of the staff sticks out like a sore thumb,” adds Aull.
“I find it easy to know when I'm in a restaurant that is sexually objectifying their staff. That sets the tone for what sort of behaviour they will tolerate.”
Joel believes there is no excuse that justifies any type of inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.
“Just because a [server] is dressed revealingly, doesn't give you the okay to degrade her, talk down to her, and belittle her. She’s still a human being, she’s still a person, she still has a family,” says Joel
Creating a safe space
Aubrey from CCASA believes many servers who are experiencing sexual harassment should know any type of inappropriate behaviour isn’t acceptable — the customer isn’t always right.
“The first thing [servers] need to know is it’s not their fault, they haven’t done anything to bring this kind of behaviour onto themselves. People who choose this kind of behaviour are a hundred per cent responsible for [their actions]. That is an important message.”
Roberto Sarjoo is the director of marketing and communications at Restaurants Canada, a not-for-profit organization that provides each restaurant with a workplace health and safety guide, including violence and harassment.
“Overall, creating safe workplace environments is not only the right thing to do, but it’s essential for the health and success of our industry. Employers need to understand the rules in [their] provinces and be able to implement clear policies that help counter workplace violence and harassment,” says Sarjoo.
Sarjoo believes fighting against the normalization of sexual misconduct in the industry comes from each restaurant taking their own initiative.
“It really is making sure that all employees know that sexual harassment and violence will not be condoned or addressed with apathy in the workplace. Survivors are safe to share their experiences and that they will be taken seriously.”
The silver lining
Jansen continues to create a space in Bridgette Bar where servers are able to speak up for themselves, knowing there won’t be repercussions for those who do come forward.
“Your staff are your most important people. They make your restaurant work, and if they don’t feel respected or that there’s trust in them, they’re not going to be the best people they can be,” says Jansen. “Seeing how important it is if we keep encouraging others and leading by example, there’s definitely a way that this [issue of sexual harassment] can get better.”
Aubrey says that with more individuals standing up against sexual misconduct, the narrative is changing.
“I think the strides we’ve seen in the last couple of years, honestly, not to be dramatic about it, [I thought] they would not happen in my lifetime… I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but I think we’re on a movement now and the ship is sailing.”
- By Sarah Green and Casey Richardson