Restaurant workers face added challenges when complaining about harassment

Staff in the hospitality industry suffering workplace harassment are often left with nowhere to turn because the sector lacks resources to find help, a women's rights advocate says.

Hospitality industry considered precarious work without many places to turn for help

Bailey Reid, chair of the Public Engagement Committee for the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women, says it can be difficult for people working in the restaurant industry to speak up about harassment because they are often in precarious jobs. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Staff in the hospitality industry suffering workplace harassment are often left with nowhere to turn because the sector lacks resources to find help, a women's rights advocate says. 

Unlike other workplaces that have sexualized cultures, such as the military, people in the hospitality industry may not have a union or human resources department to turn to, said Bailey Reid, chair of the public engagement committee for the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women. 

"With the hospitality industry, it's more difficult because you don't have people you can talk to," she told CBC Radio's All in a Day.

Reid provides workplace training to both employees and management about preventing sexual harassment in the hospitality industry.

Harassment is in the eye of the receiver.- Bailey Reid,  Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women

That industry can often come with an "old boy's club" mentality.

Her comments come after Ottawa chef and restaurateur Matthew Carmichael issued a statement admitting to sexually harassing women.

Another restaurant manager called Carmichael's revelations an "open secret" within the restaurant industry.

'Harassment is in the eye of the receiver'

It's that type of "open secret" that Reid wants to put an end to, by having employers talk openly about workplace policies to keep employees safe.

"Talk about harassment, talk about the environment that you're working in, when it's good, when it's bad and make sure that your employees also know what the procedures are if they're experiencing harassment," she said.

Reid points to Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Act, Bill 168, which mandates employers ensure a workplace is safe. The bill defines workplace harassment as "engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome." 

However, she said it's up to employers to develop their own policies to deal with someone who is harassing others — policies which could include a warning system, education or, ultimately, being fired with cause.

Even if someone said they didn't realize their comment or action constitutes harassment, it doesn't matter, Reid said. Her view is that "harassment is in the eye of the receiver" and claiming a comment was a compliment can't be justified if the person who it's directed to feels uncomfortable.

"I think, to me, that's just another way to excuse bad behaviour," she said. 

It's unchecked behaviour that can lead to a culture where people believe it's OK to make inappropriate comments, she said.

Sexual harassment not about sex

"[Sexual harassment] is about expressions of power. When people who are in positions of power know that they can say these things unchecked, that's when a pattern exists and when it starts to continue," Reid said. 

That's why she said it's important for people — especially men —to speak up when they hear a comment or see inappropriate behaviour for the first time, because it's not likely the the last time.

And if an employee is being harassed, Reid suggests they speak to their colleagues or, in pervasive cases, consult a lawyer, though she admits that can be difficult for people with unstable employment.

"There's no longer a need to try to be part of the old boy's club," she said.