Quite a title isn’t it? Maybe what is coming to the surface today in every facet of our society makes it easier to talk about this or maybe it is a topic that is one that we may want to ignore, but we simply can’t. In either case the time is long overdue to not just talk, but to take action against a dark side of the restaurant business.
The focus of the day is on sexual harassment, but it goes even deeper than that. I love this restaurant business and owe a great deal to the environment, the places where I worked and grew as a professional and the majority of peers and mentors who were honest, hard working, talented, and damn good people. That being said – there is a dark side to this business that permeates nearly every segment – a dark side that impacted, at some level, almost every person that I know. Harassment wears many hats and manifests in ways that are hard hitting, insensitive, dangerous, and damaging in very serious ways.
“The act of systematic and/or continued unwanted and annoying actions of one party or group, including threats and demands. The purposes may vary, including racial prejudice, personal malice, an attempt to force someone to quit a job or grant sexual favors, apply illegal pressure to collect a bill, or merely gain sadistic pleasure from making someone fearful or anxious.”
-The Free Dictionary
I have been fortunate to work in stellar properties where fairness and respect were the rule – for the most part, but even with this umbrella of what is right there existed examples of harassment – sometimes unintended. The “initiation” of new cooks, sometimes insensitive comments, demeaning behavior that emphasized a fellow cooks weaknesses, sexual innuendo and edgy jokes, under-breath comments about a server, and even racially charged comments that were too often viewed as playful rather than harmful were (are) present in nearly every kitchen at varying levels. So why does this continue to happen and how complicit are we in perpetuating an environment that today is considered “hostile”? Here are some thoughts:
 THE EXCUSE – YOU NEED TO DEVELOP A TOUGH SKIN IN THIS FIELD
Why should working in a kitchen be any different than any other profession? The feeling that only the strong shall survive in a kitchen environment certainly limits the opportunity to acclimate some very talented people. The assumption that emotional calluses will develop and shield a person from harmful behavior is a fallacy. Nobody likes to be bullied or made to feel inadequate or powerless.
 THE BANTER IS WHAT MAKES THE JOB FUN
Sure – people laugh and pass around the high fives and fist bumps when a disparaging or crusty comment is made about another, but is it really something to celebrate? How would you feel on the receiving end of insensitive comments? Banter doesn’t make the job fun it makes the job gut wrenching and uncomfortable. The gang mentality that supports this is childish and damaging and should have worn off by the time people make it through middle school.
 EVERYBODY ENJOYS A GOOD JOKE
Some people do, some people don’t. We all try to learn to endure the jokes about height, weight, ethnicity, looks, beliefs, intelligence, common sense, and skills, but trying to endure is not an endorsement of these attacks. Many people are not able to let these comments roll off their back – they take it personally – as they should. This constant bombardment with demeaning jokes makes it difficult for many people to do their work and look forward to walking through those kitchen doors.
 NEW MEMBERS NEED TO PAY THEIR DUES
Why is an informal initiation considered the right of passage in a kitchen? data has shown that the most difficult time for any new employee (in any field) is the first two weeks on the job. Do we want new employees to cut the cord before they have been given a chance? Is this why we make that transition so hard? Shouldn’t we do everything in our power to make this transition comfortable and welcoming so that we gain the benefits of a new set of hands and a fresh perspective? Initiations should be left for the silly antics of fraternities and sororities, not the workforce.
 IF YOU CAN’T STAND THE HEAT – STAY OUT OF THE KITCHEN
I agree that the “right stuff” is important. I know from experience that the work is hard, sometimes dangerous, and challenging physically, mentally, and emotionally, but why should we promote the belief that the strong survive and the weak shall perish. Any leader and team worth a grain of salt seeks to find a person’s strength and learn from it while understanding his or her weakness and figuring out ways to complement it or help the person grow. Kitchens should be no different. There are likely benefits gained from giving everyone a chance and supporting their growth.
 I WENT THROUGH THIS TRIAL BY FIRE – SO YOU MUST DO SO AS WELL
Ok, this falls back to those old folk tales of your grandparents walking 5 miles each way to school without a coat or gloves in 20 below weather and using this story as a way to tell young kids to toughen up and deal with it. Things do change and many of the difficulties faced by previous generations no longer are applicable or necessary. If it was wrong in the past then why continue to fuel that fire and deem it as still appropriate?
 BOYS WILL BE BOYS AND MEN NEVER GROW UP
The male dominated, old boy environment of the kitchen is not something to be proud of, and it is something that is in need of a hard look and positive action. Assuming that the errant behavior in a kitchen is something that is OK for men and that this alone is a good excuse is really absurd.
 WOMEN NEED TO EARN THE RIGHT TO BE IN THE KITCHEN
Really? Everyone needs to demonstrate, over a period of time, that they have the skills and the aptitude for kitchen work, but to assume that the kitchen is a male work environment and that women need to prove themselves at a different level to be accepted and make a difference is right out of the 1950’s. Let’s stop living in the past and learn that everyone in the kitchen is equal and should be treated that way.
 BEING TOUGH ON A COOK MAKES HIM OR HER STRONGER
Yes, I know there are many out there who will stand by this statement as the absolute truth, but anyone who has raised children knows that everyone needs to be treated the same and everyone needs to be treated differently. In other words there are different ways to get the best out of different people. Some need a constant push, while others simply need a little encouragement. Some need added discipline while others are just looking for opportunities to shine. It is not one shoe fits all when it comes to setting the stage for self-motivation.
 COME ON – IT’S JUST HARMLESS BEHAVIOR – THAT’S JUST THE WAY IT IS – DEAL WITH IT
I have been in those conversations where some point out that all of this discussion about harassment is way over-blown. That we are becoming a society that is too sensitive and forced to look at every situation based on its political correctness. Maybe to some degree that is true, but the underlying reality is that there is far too much inappropriate behavior and groundless negative behavior in the workforce and in life than there should be. We can choose to be part of the problem or part of a realistic solution. Which do you choose?
 THAT’S JUST THE WAY THE CHEF COMMUNICATES
The temperament, the mood, the level of bullying and harassment based on age, size, gender, beliefs, education, and common sense is determined by the approach taken or condoned by the leader. When a chef contributes to the behavior stated above or simply turns away and allows it to happen, then he or she must take responsibility for the hostile work environment that exists. If the chef encourages this behavior through his or her own actions – yelling, pointing fingers, demeaning cooks and service staff, promoting a vile exchange of four letter expletives, participation in sexual harassment, or simply pointing to everyone’s mistakes without ever acknowledging good work, then the rest of the staff will tend to emulate this behavior. As is commonly referred to in kitchen talk ‘ “The fish stinks from the head down.”
Let’s work together to create a positive work environment for all and build an industry that continues to do great work, creative work, important work, and work that can provide rewarding careers for many.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
BE THE EXAMPLE OF GREATNESS
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Restaurant Consulting and Training