We Can't Change the Restaurant Industry without Improving HR

When we talk about long-term solutions, we have to aim for more than not crossing the law, because the law can and does fail us.

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Dec 22 2017, 6:00pm

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I’ve worked in a relatively rare and unusual restaurant position since 2009: HR. In many restaurants in this industry, big and small, there is no one in this role. There’s a simple enough reason: restaurant margins are razor thin, and HR isn’t seen as contributing to the bottom line. But there are deeper reasons, too. Restaurants have long been unusual employers, not just because they eschew cubicles for hot lines, but because of tipping. Since the 1800s, restaurant industry’s trade associations have successfully advocated for the abdication of an employer’s number one responsibility—to pay workers’ wages—by arguing that the guests’ tips are wages instead.

Now it’s December 2017, and the silence around some of the restaurant industry’s titans’ abuse and sexual harassment of employees is breaking. People are reflecting on how we got here and what to do about it. While it’s critically important to expose bad chefs and restaurateurs for past behaviors, it‘s not a sufficient, long-term solution.

When I think about what we should do now, I go back to my own start in restaurant HR. We were a two-person office, and the other person, who had trained me, was about to leave. I had been there a few weeks. On her last day, she said, “Remember: it’s your job to be on the side of the people here.”

I built my role at that same company over the next eight years, and have thought a lot about what she meant ever since. The job began with simpler tasks: I did payroll, filed invoices, and mailed checks, but as I got deeper into things, I realized just how much more work needed to be done. I navigated the restaurants through massive labor law changes that benefited employees, advocated for and created policies that supported them, sought to clarify the systems that are often inscrutable restaurant workers, guided and coached management at critical moments, and generally worked to be a resource for the people in the entire restaurant group. I saw this not as working against the employer, but as a balancing act: how would the business improve if we cared for employees with an approach typically lacking in the restaurant industry?

I became the person both service and kitchen employees called when things got bad, and it was my responsibility to resolve them for the business. If an employee was hit by a car and needed help with insurance and medical leave; when someone’s illness finally caught up with them and they lost the fight to cancer. There were also times when people “crossed the line,” and we had to redirect, coach, discipline, mediate, and protect: when employees disrespected a woman in command, when they fought, when a joke leaned on prejudiced humor, when a guest told a server he owned her body, when someone hired from an outside cleaning service stalked that same server all the way home.

What I’ve come to understand is that denying difference is a form of whitewashing over historic and current inequities that keep power and resources in the hands of those who already have it.

We tried to do right, and often, we did. But there were many times when I felt that we—myself included—could have done better. And as the sexual harassment allegations across the restaurant industry mount, the conversations that are surfacing reveal just how muddy the waters are in our current restaurant culture.

Misogyny and racism go hand and hand, and we have to address them at the same. They are structural and institutional problems, not just personal ones. And they’re part of our larger society, not just the food industry. Anyone’s freedom from abuse is tied up in everyone’s freedom from abuse, because abuse begets abuse. We therefore need structural and institutional effort and attention from all of us, across the entire industry, to fix the culture inside restaurants.

It's not enough to have a handbook written by a very good lawyer or the presence of an HR professional in place to mediate when employee relations go south. It’s not even enough to go through well-regarded harassment and discrimination trainings for management. We need more. The training you get from legal counsel is framed by its objective: to reduce liability. It therefore teaches you what not to say, what not to do. This does not necessarily or even likely teach you how to see differently; it teaches you to see the offense of others— often the more vulnerable among us advocating for their dignity and respect— as an obstacle to avoid or, in some cases, to deal with.

This aspect of HR in restaurants is often steeped in a tacit understanding that we should be, for example, colorblind: treat everyone the same way and disavow our differences. What I’ve come to understand is that denying difference is a form of whitewashing over historic and current inequities that keep power and resources in the hands of those who already have it. The order of things depends on us naturalizing this.

We will need to do more than to simply demand that restaurants become environments where your boss doesn't assault you. We need to create equitable workplaces where subtle and overtly taught expressions of power are worked against every day to create equal outcomes, all the way up to the top.

The logic of misogyny and racism are in all the things we do, the complexity of which we often don’t grasp as we do them, or we would surely never get through our days. The little things open the door for the big things. Like a great host, we make our restaurant culture hospitable to abuse. And inside the door, the great and little abuses comingle.

That is why the many men I know in positions of power in the restaurant industry are expressing uncertainty in this moment while they reflect upon their past actions, unsure of how to behave now.

I do not want to reassure them and just say, “As long as you don’t step over this big, red line, you’re OK.” I also do not want them to wallow in their own anxiety or circle the wagons and decide that—because they don’t know how to act around women—maybe we shouldn’t be here.

We will need to do more than to simply demand that restaurants become environments where your boss doesn't assault you. We need to create equitable workplaces where subtle and overtly taught expressions of power are worked against every day to create equal outcomes, all the way up to the top. When we talk about long-term solutions, we have to aim for more than not crossing the law, because the law can and does fail us. If you hold enough privilege to feel that today’s laws are fine as they are now, it helps to look backward to see it: In 1948, the Supreme Court upheld a Michigan law that said women in large cities couldn’t bartend unless their husbands or fathers owned the bar. They were otherwise considered too vulnerable to tend the bar. It wasn’t overturned until 1976. In 1960 in Providence, Rhode Island, the police demanded that all restaurant waiters obtain identity cards, get fingerprinted, and photographed. They then ran those records out to databases across the country, to areas where homosexuality was illegal. If a felony for that crime came up, the waiters lost their jobs.

Does that remind you of anything?

The idea that some immigrants are illegal and can never become citizens isn’t self-evident, and it is wrong. The idea that employers must be the gatekeepers of this immigration policy isn’t self-evident, and it is wrong. Sometimes it feels like everyone in the industry knows this to be true, and yet things do not change. It is, to borrow a phrase that has gotten a lot of use lately, a kind of open secret. We should be wary of those, and who they benefit.

There are people who are working to change this. This is the work that ROC United and Race Forward are doing with their restaurant employer toolkit, "Adding Racial Equity to the Menu."

One of the best things we can do in the short term is to listen. If you’re a white man or woman cooking today, seek out the voices of people and women of color in the kitchen and make the space for them to be heard. Look to restaurants led by women of color, those that have achieved more equitable relationships with their staff and communities, and study what they’re doing. Follow new voices, and hold back from your reflex when you disagree. Realize that when you hear something that feels uncomfortable about race, gender, class, or sexuality in the restaurant, it is your moment to grow and incorporate that truth. Pay those teachers with your support, and keep listening. There’s been a lot of work put in to make it hard to hear the people whose lives are treated as if they matter less, just as there has been a lot of work to make it hard for them to speak.

READ MORE: How to Fuel a Revolution

We should work together within our organizations to first understand the way our implicit biases hold up misogyny and racism and the power structures they support. Then, we can evaluate and revise our management and employment practices so that we’re building more equitable structures instead. We can start by looking at the ways we recruit, hire, train, and promote.

Today, I am a restaurant owner who runs two small, independent New York City restaurants with my two partners. We’ve got big ambitions. As an owner, my HR role has changed. I’m still responsible for making sure that the paperwork is compliant and complete, for advancing policies and benefits that make things better, and for working it through when things get tough. But I’m also in an ongoing project with my partners, the management, and all the people who work with us to build something different. Something better.

There is a long way for us to go. As they say, the only way out is through.


Leah Campbell is co-owner of the Brooklyn restaurant Hart's and the Manhattan restaurant Cervo's.