sexual harassment

#metoo: Sexual harassment and complicity in the restaurant industry

eLearning course helps workers identify harassment and provides intervention training

By Kavita Sabharwal-Chomiuk

Being a server at a restaurant can be a physically demanding job: carrying trays full of drinks, changing kegs and being on your feet all day can take a toll on the body. But what many people don’t consider is that it can also be an emotionally demanding job: dealing with inebriated, sometimes violent customers, being in high-stress situations, and for many servers, coping with harassment from management, colleagues or patrons.

Since that famous article from The New Yorker detailed the multiple allegations of sexual assault, sexual harassment and rape against powerful film producer Harvey Weinstein on October 10, it seems as though the world has been collectively holding its breath – who would be the next public figure to be accused of despicable acts?

Day after day, the public was continually surprised by the accusations levelled against prominent figures, many of them within the restaurant industry, including Mario Batali, John Besh, Matt Carmichael, Todd English and Johnny Iuzzini. However, the initial surprise when it comes to the allegations against Weinstein, at least, was essentially non-existent. The question is, if this was such an open secret, why did no one speak out or dig deeper? Why, when digging did occur, was it shut down before the allegations could come to light? Why did it take, in some cases, decades for this information to become public knowledge?

For at least some of the accusers, the reason for the hesitation to come forward after a violation has occurred is because the accused is, or at the time was, in a position of power. It’s not easy to speak up, especially when you know you might be sacrificing something as essential as your livelihood. Branching off from that power is the fact that in many cases, people, be it subordinates, colleagues, friends or board members, knew of the accused’s behaviour but did not want to anger or alienate these powerful people by telling them this behaviour was not okay, and as such, were complicit in their actions.


Years ago, I began my first – and only – restaurant job at a pub in downtown Toronto. I was new to the industry but had worked in customer service before, so I figured it would be comparable to my previous experiences. Although I had friends who had been working in the restaurant industry for years, I hadn’t really heard of anything untoward happening – at least, not without the consent of both parties – and I didn’t know what I was walking into.

Within the nine months or so that I worked at the pub, I managed to gain an admirer – a regular customer – whose behaviour made me increasingly uncomfortable as time passed. At first it started out small – showering me with compliments (which I accepted awkwardly at best), and seemingly always showing up while I was working. That escalated to getting my number from a co-worker (without my permission) and texting me, attempting to buy me drinks so I would stay late after my shift was over (which were always refused), asking to rub my feet on several occasions and repeatedly requesting I break up with my boyfriend and date him instead.

Until his behaviour started escalating, I didn’t worry about him too much. Sure, I found him a bit creepy, but he had never felt threatening. After things got uncomfortable for me, I distanced myself as much as possible. He still came into the restaurant while I was working, but I stopped going out of my way to say hello, prevented any opportunity for him to start a conversation, and generally ignored him unless he absolutely could not be avoided.

I decided to speak with my employers about the situation, not sure if they knew what had been going on, but I discovered that not only did everyone (management and colleagues) know that he was coming on very strong, but that management refused to tell him to leave me alone because he was a valuable customer who brought a lot of business in, and they didn’t want to upset him.

I was shocked. It was clear to me that management would not take my side, so I never brought it up again. There seemed to be no point. I quit that job soon after.

In my opinion, the worst part of my situation was that no one I worked with, from managers to colleagues, told me that he was essentially stalking me, knowing that I was in the dark. They were complicit in letting that harassment happen, and did nothing to stop it once they knew how I felt about it. In my view, if you look away when you witness something bad happening, it’s essentially the same as patting the aggressor on the back.

Perhaps my personal experience was the exception, not the rule, however with all the allegations coming out of the woodwork about Harvey Weinstein and other men in power, I’ve quickly learned that it’s a whole lot closer to the rule than I previously thought.

Sexual harassment complaints rampant across industries

It turns out this sort of harassment – and worse – can be found everywhere, across all industries. Buzzfeed recently compiled a list of all the harassment complaints filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission between the years 1995 and 2016. A total of over 170,000 claims were made in that time, and 10,645 were made by restaurant workers – the industry with by far the most filed incidents of harassment. An additional 34 per cent – or over 64,000 complainants – did not specify which industry they were in.

And according to this Angus Reid survey of about 1,500 working Canadians, a total of 29.5 per cent of those surveyed said they experienced either physical or verbal harassment, or unwanted contact in the workplace. However, about 80 per cent of respondents that indicated they had been harassed said they never reported it for a range of reasons, including that they didn’t think their employer would respond well (21 per cent of respondents). For those that did report the incident(s), only about 40 per cent said their employers were “responsive and conducted a serious investigation and took appropriate action”. Meanwhile, 36 per cent of those that complained about sexual harassment said their employer was “responsive but did not take any concrete action”, and about 25 per cent described their employer as “unresponsive and dismissive” towards their complaint.

eLearning course helps identify and prevent sexual harassment in the workplace

sexual harassment

In an effort to promote knowledge around what is considered harassment and curb instances of harassment at foodservice establishments, the Ontario government, the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association, Ontario Tourism Education Corporation and Tourism HR Canada have joined forces to bring industry workers an online harassment eLearning course.

It’s Your Shift is a free and voluntary sexual violence and intervention training course that was developed in response to Ontario’s Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan, as well as industry needs. The course is made up of five modules that take up to 45 minutes to complete, and is available for both managers and front-of-house staff. The course teaches users how to recognize inappropriate behaviour, how to intervene, and how to try to prevent it from happening in the first place.

While I wish this eLearning course had been available for my former managers when I was in that situation, unfortunately, until the stigma around speaking out dies down, I doubt it would have made much of a difference.

Kavita Sabharwal-Chomiuk is the online editor of

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