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Restaurant Association Panelists on How to Stop Sexual Harassment

Restaurateurs, employment lawyers, and an employee share their thoughts

Aubrie Pick

jThe Golden Gate Restaurant Assosciation’s annual conference this week included more than anti-harassment trainings and seminars — it culminated in a lengthy closing panel on how to address the high-profile problem head on. Geared toward restaurant managers and owners, the panelists included employment lawyers and restaurateurs sharing their best practices for avoiding harassment and handling it when it happened.Also among the group was an employee of Josey Baker Bread, which co-operates the Mill with Four Barrel. That coffee company ousted its founder after he was accused of sexually harassing employees including a Josey Baker Bread employee.

Here’s what some of the panelists had to say:

Erin Wade, owner of Homeroom in Oakland

On why employees should report instances of harassment that might seem small

“We had an employee making a really inappropriate comment to a staff member of ours, and [the staff member] didn’t want him to be fired, so they didn’t say anything for months. At first the stuff he was saying was borderline, but he was testing the waters, and he started crossing the line. Eventually they did tell us, and we did fire him.” That, Wade suggests, could have been avoided if an earlier report had been made.

On employee harassment from customers

“I had practiced labor law before I started Homeroom, so I thought I was super on top of it. And then I was as extremely shocked to learn a few years ago that a number of my staff was being harassed by customers. That’s not part of the state mandated training... so no, it’s not enough to just have a handbook.”

To combat harassment from customers, Wade shared a system that she’d devised — and previously shared with the Washington Post, for a color-coded system in which female customer-facing employees say a color, yellow (for a questionable remark), orange (for more overtly sexual and discomforting remarks), or red (for overt comments or touching).

“You just say a color, and an automatic action happens: A manager is required to take over a table, and ask them to leave. It’s really simple, it doesn’t require judgment. Everyone has different levels of things that feel concerning to them.... It’s virtually eliminated harassment a the red level.”

Andrew Sommer, Partner at Conn Maciel Carey LLP

On how employers should treat complaints

“The worst thing that can occur is to just do nothing, and wait a month to investigate.... when you hear about this, when you see something that happens that’s inappropriate, or once you get that complaint, you need to get that assessment done.”

“You want to interview the complainant, and you also want to give the opportunity to the accused to be interviewed, that’s really important here, and you also want to interview relevant witnesses.”

On whether more lawsuits have been brought recently:

“With the Me Too movement, you would think there would be more litigation, but everything that I’ve seen is heightened awareness, not an uptick in litigation.”

Still, there are more suits brought in the court of public opinion. “As a business, a really negative report on the restaurant can have a huge negative impact on the bottom of line of the restaurant.”

The Mill The Mill

Jess Galli, baker and manager at Josey Baker Bread

With an employee’s perspective

“Hearing all this feels like a great defensive measure if you’re somebody who has racked up all the abuse and harassment, and you’re looking down the barrel of something that could potential ruin your career. But what everyone in this room needs to be thinking about is how to create a system that protects everybody.”

“Are we valuing each other as much as the products we create? In many kitchens, that’s not the case... I have friends, and I myself, have worked in places where employees don’t feel valued, because it’s a rotating door... So at this point in my life, I value having a culture that makes me feel like I’m not doing just what I love to do, but [doing it] with people I love and respect.”

Kelli Anderson

Karen Leibowitz, co-founder, the Perennial restaurant

On upping her poster game

“We have posters in the back of house that say, ‘these are your rights to breaks’, that say, ‘the are your rights to minimum wage.’ We should be really clear to say these are your rights to have a non hostile work environment, your right to be heard.’”

With designer Kelli Anderson and Cherry Bombe magazine, Leibowitz made and is now circulating a “Heimlich Maneuver” inspired sign for restaurants.

On the meaning of restaurants

“I’ve been thinking a lot about the original meaning of a restaurant. It was a place to be restored, with travelers stopping at a place where they would get food and rest centuries ago... but thinking about the potential for restaurants to restore more... our culture, our environment, and really, to not just cover our asses and minimize damage, but to actually to make positive change.”

“That is super idealistic, and as much as anyone I understand how hard it is to just get through the day in the restaurant business... But I can only keep getting through the day with this bigger goal in mind.”

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