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Disruption: The Emergence of #MeToo

Catersource magazine’s annual State of the Industry feature, now in its fourth year of reporting, identifies key areas of focus for caterers in anticipation of its Catersource Conference and Tradeshow. In this third section of the full feature, Catersource looks to the rise of drop off and delivery revenue streams and their impact on the food and beverage industry.

(See part 1 here, part 2 here and part 3 here)

Workplace therapist Brandon Smith said in August 2018, “If everything turns out the way it’s supposed to, someday I’ll be out of a job.” At least, that’s the plan in his goal to eliminate all workplace disfunction. But, “sometimes the whole self is messy and inarticulate.”

We are, aren’t we? No one is perfect, and no one can always clearly articulate what needs to be said at the moment one is called upon to act.

Let’s backtrack a bit.

On October 17, 2017 around noon, #MeToo, posted by actress Alyssa Milano, began to trend on Twitter as a response to allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace. By the end of the day, according to Wikipedia, the tag had been used more than 200,000 times. On Facebook, 12 million #MeToo posts occurred over a 24-hour period. I was one of the 12 million who posted.

Christa Quarles, CEO, Open Table, put it another way in her commentary, A Woman’s Place in the Kitchen (February 2018). “When the #MeToo movement took off last fall, my first thought was, #WhoHasn’t?” And from San Francisco powerhouse chef Traci Des Jardins, “The work is hard enough; it’s disheartening to deal with [sexual harassment] on top of it.”

John Besh, Mario Batali, and—maybe you don’t remember him from the late ‘90s, but I do—Jeff Smith (The Frugal Gourmet). The chef in the popular white linen restaurant in your town, the dishwasher at the local fine fast, the executive in a head office of a multi-million-dollar catering operation. Incidents are clickbait news but far too often, something one keeps to oneself.

The complexity of groups

Let’s go back to Brandon Smith, who speaks to the “complexity of groups” in work situations, healthy boundaries, false alarms, maintaining a tight team, and refining a sense of when it’s fun and comfortable, and when someone has gone too far.

In a discussion at MISE conference in August 2018, Smith, along with social psychologist Krysia Waldron, PhD, and MISE director Alexei Rudolf, addressed audience questions from a room primarily occupied with hotel chefs. “I couldn’t think of any topic that is more difficult to get our arms around, to tackle,” stated Rudolf, “than the issue of sexual harassment in the hospitality workplace.”

Said Rudolf, “For better or for worse, we tend to be a male-dominated industry. High pressure situation, sometimes you have alcohol, sometimes you have drugs, it’s a very physical environment, elbow bumping, very close quarters, late nights. All of those things are not helpful. Adding to that is that it is hospitality, so from the front of house perspective there is an element of flirtation that provides an edge. Just a little bump is all it takes to find oneself in a situation that is not okay.”

Question: Have you ever been in, seen, or heard of a situation in your workplace that did not feel good; seem right; or perhaps didn’t sound right? I think a lot of us could answer affirmatively.

But instead of focusing on negatives within this section, let’s focus on how we can move past the blame, shame, and negativity, and use leadership and culture to create a workplace environment where all employees can thrive. Here are some solutions:

I worry about becoming comfortable with my co-workers. We work long hours in close quarters and the defenses come down. This can cause problems, even with jokes and such. “The piece we want to pay attention to,” says Krysia Waldron, PhD, “is how we give feedback and accept feedback from each other. We want to pay attention to how hard it is to build [workplace] bonds, be with one another, build connection, and be in a friendship—while also tiptoeing around any subject which might possibly be offensive.”

Social connection is very important to team dynamic, workflow, and success. But, as we all know, friendships are generally built on being vulnerable, authentic, and raw—which often include taking some social risks.

A lot of emotional bandwidth is expended when addressing someone who has struck a negative blow. While it’s good to let the offending person know in the moment, it may also be hard to do when a group is focused on performance (such as a large plate-up or in the midst of a time-crucial off-premise set up); or if the incident is so quickly executed that by the time a person has recovered, the offender has left the area.

Additionally, the momentum of the team may be interrupted when a person is called out in-the-moment, and that moment of correction may become detrimental to the success of the event.

As a leader, you need to let your staff know that the old saw, “treat others as you’d like to be treated,” doesn’t always work—because people have different ideas regarding how they’d like to be engaged with. 

As a leader, you need to let your staff know that the old saw, “treat others as you’d like to be treated,” doesn’t always work—because people have different ideas regarding how they’d like to be engaged with. Ensure that your staff “knows” each other. Maybe it’s team building exercises, maybe it’s a getting-to-know-you team lunch where something special about oneself is shared. It’s not fool proof, but any way you can create an atmosphere of understanding that will help establish preferences and boundaries is worth the effort. 

The most dangerous person in your business is…

Smith suggests that the company leader is the most dangerous, explaining, “What I mean by that is the leader sets the culture, so if your culture is one of ‘turn and look the other way,’ that person can be pretty dangerous.

“The cool opportunity is to ask yourself, how are you setting company culture? You have a lot of control. Work should not suck; it should not be a source of anxiety or stress or depression. It should be a place of fulfillment, meaning, and purpose. The really awesome thing about being a leader is you can set that. You can create that culture if you are really intentional and are willing to do the hard work.

“Culture answers the question of who we are and how we choose to operate. Identity. Pride in where we work. How we operate with each other, with the work product, with each other. Culture is also what happens when you are not around. One of your biggest jobs is deciding what you want, and then messaging and even preaching it. And then when people violate it—just like with your kids—you act swiftly and put them in a time out. You don’t say, ‘oh let’s talk about it.’ You send them home [for the day]. You do something quickly to address it. It’s a signal that, ‘I’m serious about this.’”

The bystander effect

Says Waldron, “the bystander effect of everyone watching and thinking someone else is going to handle [a situation] is pervasive. It’s a dynamic that we are all susceptible to.”

Some employees will ignore a situation they see a co-worker entangled in for myriad reasons. “By walking away, I know I was part of the problem, but it was also an element of self-preservation,” said one female hotel chef at MISE.

Depending upon how large your organization is, you personally may not be witnessing harassment, but your employees are. “But if you haven’t given folks an idea of what to do with the knowledge, or how to ask a question,” says Waldron, “then you leave people ill-equipped to raise a really volatile red flag without a guideline as to how to do that.”

Do not expect that your employees will know what to do when they witness something. Have procedures in place and educate your people on how you want them to step up when a situation occurs. “’Here’s who you should talk to and this is how you approach this.’ You need a process for feedback and a process for how to handle this stuff,” says Smith.

How do you steer a big ship toward culture change?

Imagine you are in a large hotel property, or a long-running catering company, or a college foodservice system. You have employees who have worked there for over 20 years. You might change leadership at the top, but everything down below has stayed very static. You want to change the culture but a faction of employees is stubbornly status quo.

The answer is very simple: expect about a 10% turnover to affect change.

Says Smith, “Culture change is hard to [accomplish], especially when you have legacy [employees], so you [need] to find that core group of people to follow you into one-on-one hand-to-hand combat. You are always going to have 10 to 20% who won’t follow you, and what I’ve found is that you have to invite those people to leave. If everyone stays, you might not have culture change. You have to be serious. ‘This is really happening.’

People might leave, but it will probably be the right people leaving.

Think of it this way, as one executive shared with Smith: “It was like we were all fish in a tank but the water hadn’t been cleaned for a long time. When I set in place the culture that I wanted, it was like I cleared the water. We could see the fish that were hanging out at the bottom, not in the school, and they knew that we could see them. They learned that they either needed to get into the school like everybody else, or find another tank. A lot of them chose to find another tank.”

Fear of falsified situations.

Now that a lot of people are “waving their #MeToo flags,” how do we know if these are legitimate concerns and how do you know what to believe? Anything could be a false alarm. As a leader, what can you do?

“This is so complicated,” says Waldron. “First of all, I have to put this out there—there are [mentally unstable] people, and they will do [unfortunate] things. We certainly don’t want to demonize all men and we don’t want to patronize all women, but we [also] don’t want to be so worried about someone pulling the fire alarm falsely that we don’t address that fire could happen—especially because we have the equivalent of human candles burning all over the place.”

Waldron added one caveat: “Most of my clients are men, and I have worked with men who are really legitimately concerned that they are going to cross a line they didn’t know was there. Being the subject of the fire alarm pull can be catastrophic for … credibility. If you are someone who worries about that, I have a lot of compassion for that fear.

“For those of us [who have suffered abuse]—I don’t think we are worried about false alarms.  The process is very difficult for those people who pull the alarm, even if it is very justified, and the investigation process tends to feel really horrible when you are the subject of it.”

While some leaders may feel the need to disengage from their team in order to ensure their own propriety, it is better, says Smith, to teach your team grace, “and create an environment where there is more understanding.”

Learn more at Catersource

Want to learn about #metoo and women in hospitality? See FIERCE. FEARLESS. FEMALE. A Discussion About What It Means to be a #Girlboss in Hospitality at Catersource 2019, moderated by Jamie Quickert and with a panel of women business owners. Sunday, February 24, 11:00 a.m.

Kathleen Stoehr

Kathleen Stoehr is the Director of Community & Content Strategy for Informa Connect | Catersource, which includes print and digital content, as well as live education at both Catersource, the Art of Catering Food, and Leading Caterers of America Executive Summit.