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U.S. restaurant culture inadvertently leads to sexual harassment

The combination of tipping-based compensation structures with demands for overexaggerated friendliness lead customers to feel they have power over service workers.

U.S. restaurant culture inadvertently leads to sexual harassment
[Source Photo: Pexels]
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Anywhere between 70% and 90% of restaurant servers and bartenders have likely been subjected to sexual harassment—from unwanted comments and looks, requests for dates, to physical touching—by customers. There are also many anecdotal indications that the behavior has heightened during the pandemic, with wait staff reporting what’s come to be known as “maskual harassment”: servers being asked to remove their masks and show their faces for the gratification of customers.

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A new study aims to get to the reason behind sexual harassment in hospitality, and results point to an answer rooted in the combination of two common staples of the industry in America: workers’ reliance on tips, and expectations to give cheerful “service with a smile” at all times. Both these elements together—financial dependence on and emotional deference to customers—create a power dynamic that puts customers in a comfortable position to make sexualized gestures toward their servers. The researchers suggest that employers could significantly drive down instances of this behavior by eliminating just one of the two factors.

The study, carried out by professors from Penn State, Notre Dame, and Emlyon Business School in Lyon, France, was based on a theory proposed by a 2015 study, which suggested that examples of structural power—like dependence on tipping—only activate a feeling of dominance among individuals when an element of “deferential behavior” is added to the mix. In the service industry, that deference can come in the form of smiling, says Tim Kundro, assistant professor of management and organization at Notre Dame. “Smiling is really just an explicit form of deference,” he says. The researchers replicated the model to test whether, in a service context, smiling would activate a switch that made customers feel a sense of control over the server, which could increase the chances of sexual harassment.

To test the theory, the researchers carried out both a survey, from employees’ perspective, and an experiment, from customers’ perspective. The survey involved 92 hospitality workers, including servers, cashiers, and hotel clerks, were surveyed about their experiences with sexual harassment, as well as their reliance on tipping and employers’ requirement for “service with a smile.”

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But, self-reporting has its limitations. So, in the experiment portion, participants acted as customers in a restaurant scene set up with different manipulations to test the financial and deferential elements together. They were given copies of receipts, either signaling that the server was highly dependent on tips and asking for gratuity, or explaining that the restaurant paid fair wages, and that while tips were appreciated, they weren’t required—which Kundro calls “more of a European approach” to tipping. They were also shown photos of a server, who was either smiling or displaying a neutral facial expression. Participants read a script of exchanges with the hypothetical server. (All participants were male, and shown female photos, to recreate the typical harassment dynamic; and all the servers shown in the photos were white, to eliminate any influence of racial attitudes.)

They were then asked questions on the encounter to determine how they’d viewed the power dynamic. First, they were explicitly asked if they felt they had power over the server, to which the response wasn’t so strong, which researchers said was expected, as people likely wouldn’t want to consciously admit so. But, they were then implicitly asked about power, by saying whether they’d agree or disagree with statements such as: “If I asked her for her phone number, she’d probably give it to me,” “If I told her she was attractive, she’d probably be pleased,” and “If I asked her out, she’d probably say yes.” The researchers found that among those who were faced with both tipping and smiley service, there were enhanced feelings of power. They were disinhibited toward the server, and felt that “whatever they ask for, they’ll ultimately receive in some form,”  Kundro says.

The relevance of the study is that it offers a clue as to what employers could do to help reduce instances of sexual harassment towards their employees: namely, says Alicia Grandey, professor of psychology at Penn State, to change either one of the two factors. They could pay a fair wage—not to eliminate tipping, but to decrease over-reliance on the customer for a big portion of servers’ incomes. Or, they could rethink their expectations for cheery service. These are structural problems themselves, in businesses not properly compensating employees, or having overly high service expectations. But, that they could create a climate for sexual harassment adds to the impetus to change management methods. “Our idea is that when we, as customers, see that smile, it activates the awareness of that power differential,” Grandey says. “That is what creates the likelihood of abusing the power from the customer’s perspective.”

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Kundro stresses that the theory should not be used to blame service employees for habits, like natural smiling. “We’re definitely very careful not to put the onus on the service employee,” he says, “—’hey, you’re getting sexually harassed because you’re smiling.'” Rather, the study is intended to take a management perspective, to question whether organizations that expect constant “emotional labor” from servers is inadvertently problematic. “Independently, it might not be that much of a problem,” he says, but “paired with tipping requirements, it really elicits a sense of power in the customers.”

While eliminating service with a smile may seem out of step with what we expect as customers at bars and restaurants, Grandey stresses that not smiling is not the same as being impolite, and “overexaggerated smiling” isn’t necessary in order to give friendly, efficient, and attentive service. And: “Right now, with masks, it’s a perfect time to ask that question,” she says. She’s working on an update to the study that surveys workers about incidents of sexual harassment during the pandemic. From the initial data: “It doesn’t look like masking versus non-masking made that much of a difference in customer’s reactions,” she says, “which suggests that maybe it’s not really the smile that matters all that much.” Direct eye contact, for instance, may be more valuable, and less deferent, than smiling.

Employers aside, if customers are generally more aware of the potential for a power dynamic in such scenarios, we may be more willing to change the way we behave when we’re being served. “It’s not good people and bad people,” she says, “it’s just how the situation can be adjusted.” Ultimately, she and her team wanted to shine a light on sexual harassment in hospitality, because it’s often ignored in the #metoo discourse in favor of cases within corporate America. “[That] is much more like a cover story,” she says. “This is just everyday people interacting with service workers. This isn’t like the CEO of a company.”