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Avoiding Unzipped Publicity: Sensitivity Training To Avoid The Sexual Harassment Storm

Epic tales of ass-grabbing in the kitchen were just part of the day-to-day. Graphically portrayed in Waiting’s full-frontal game to the undeniable shenanigans in cook-pop bio-fic Kitchen Confidential, contemporary kitchen frolics are legendary. Tattooed lotharios, dirty aprons, and foul-mouthed conduct has spilled into real life. All but the tattoos have to go. Celeb chefs facing allegations are reeling with lost endorsements, declines in business and bulleted careers. This storm is real and will not subside until we take it on.

There is no avoiding the media eruption over professional—and personal—crass misconduct in entertainment and politics. It follows that other industries will become suspect as the sexual harassment storm continues to pound the news cycle. How does sexual misconduct impact the restaurant business? More importantly, how do we protect employees from outlandish behavior? Is there a way to prevent unzipped publicity before it is too late?

Set expectations. And correct wrong turns.

The dreaded New Hire packet has a few places to acknowledge understanding of policy; payday, uniform compliance, maybe even a bit about social media. Separate from the 88-pages of oft-ignored content needs to be a policy, in plain speak, what is and is not acceptable behavior. Be specific. Yes, that specific! In print is only one teachable moment, though. Like taking refrigerator temperatures and wearing cut-resistant gloves, the expected decorum needs to go beyond day one. Make sure the message is well-crafted and sound; dropping $100 for a legal consult in this area is money well spent.

Be clear

Having a policy and enforcing some type of code of conduct is fundamental. Be smart by clearly defining what harassment looks like, sounds like, feels like. Merely stating—as many boilerplate harassment policies do—that you have the right to feel you are in a harassment-free work environment means nothing if terms aren’t defined.

Workforce Development

Personalize training to ensure compliance. Highlighting a bartender’s too-pushy approach towards a customer needs direction different than a server’s sultry gesticulation towards the busser. Go beyond just the printed statement, as well. During round-ups/line meetings/pre-shift, keep the reminders flowing. Work decency into the repertoire right up there with food safety, wine pairings, and upselling. It doesn’t cost anything. Until it does.

We are introducing the season’s first taste of Niagara ice wine. It pairs nicely with the washed rind cheeses on our charcuterie board…. Make sure we taking temps of the beverage cooler… We have moved into our winter uniform for the front of the house. Let’s make sure we are focusing our comments on service and not clothing appearances…. Remember the new dessert menu rolls out tomorrow…

Keep the conversation going on all fronts. It is easy to slip into old habits.

What used to be ok, is not ok.

Back in the day… should be left back in the day. There will always be growth in how we treat people. What was once acceptable to treat, say, somebody that was hearing-impaired and labeled as “deaf and dumb” we have learned is far from sensitive. Sure, it was the knowledge at the time. Is it being too sensitive? Not if the recipient is hurt by words or actions. So fix it.

Forget that it was “okay” back in 1999 to make a crude gesture behind a passing server as she made her way through the kitchen. That type of thinking is trouble and outdated. As we edge this industry towards more professional standards, conduct is a necessary element. Behavior in the past should stay there. Adopt new thinking and make that behavior the standard.

Passing too closely to a cook for gentle nudge, anatomical representations using produce, and poor word choice are sparks that can charge this type of unzipped publicity. Whether intentionally offensive or not, grabbing the apron strings that fall onto a baker’s backside is not a good move. Enforce the G-rated standard: If it isn’t good enough to say to or act out in front of a 6-year old, then it doesn’t belong.

There are some traditions that come with a cost. Protect staff, reputations and develop the virtue of this business by taking responsibility that we are good enough for all audiences.

Jim Berman is a kitchen lifer. A career cook, Jim orchestrates new menus, works on staffing solutions and manages food purchases. He received his formal culinary training in New Mexico, and has done stints in kitchens in Pittsburgh, Santa Fe, and the Delaware valley. Jim’s writing is regularly featured on Foodable, Toast and Vitamix.