Preventing workplace harassment in these modern times

Keeping in line with the relevant and important topics in the news today, I think it’s time to talk about the really “touchy” subject within our own industry: harassment in the workplace—both sexual and hostile.

Talking about this is challenging for many people, myself included, as I have been a part of the hospitality industry for as long as I can remember. In fact, my mother and father, both West Indian immigrants, came to the U.S. and opened several restaurants and businesses. I joke that I was born into a pot of food.

My love and passion for the hospitality industry is unmatched, as I spend both my professional and personal time enjoying restaurants and sampling and sharing new, delicious, and innovative foods—which can be seen on my Instagram feed full of food selfies.

With that being said, the hospitality industry is not perfect. There has been a long-standing history of inappropriate behavior—not only in the kitchens of free-standing restaurants, but in hotels as well.

We’ve all heard stories of pots, pans, and knives flying through the kitchen, or chefs yelling at their line cooks. What we haven’t spoken about and need to address is the inappropriate, sexually predatory behavior that has been going on for years. Inappropriate behavior or sexual misconduct can be as simple as unwanted hugs or repeat kisses on the cheek.

With heavy hitters like Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, and the hospitality industry’s very own Mario Batali being exposed as a serial sexual predators, there is a necessary change coming as this type of behavior has been brought into the spotlight and is now on the radar of many industries.

Not only is inappropriate behavior in the form of sexual harassment on the radar, but I predict that the next wave of change will involve general harassment and hostile work environments.

Ladies and gentlemen, the time to take a stand is now. As leaders within the hospitality industry, it is our duty to ensure that we create, promote, and foster a safe working environment that is fair, equitable, and free of harassment of all kinds, for all people. We have all said regrettable or off-color things, but we must draw a line as there comes a time when enough is enough and the industry itself can be at stake.

As a human resource professional in the hospitality industry for more than 15 years, I have heard, seen, and addressed many of these types of issues. I want to leave you with some actionable tips and ideas to ensure:

  • You implement best practices and policies to prevent a hostile work environment and harassment.
  • You maintain a working environment that promotes fair, positive, and equal treatment.

Let’s begin.

The first thing you need to do is train a critical eye on your own organization. Ask yourself the following questions:

Do you promote an environment that advocates for fair, positive, and equal treatment of all employees?

This truly starts from the top down and relies heavily on upper management, both general managers and executive chefs alike setting the tone and expectations.

Are your policies clear and concise?

Establishing an anti-harassment policy doesn’t guarantee a complete absence of harassment complaints. However, implementing an effective policy and procedure—coupled with anti-harassment training for all staff—will assist in preventing harassment as well as support individuals who are being harassed to come forward and ensure problems are addressed quickly and effectively.

Are your policies clearly communicated to all employees?

Make sure you dedicate a section to harassment in your company handbook, and consider posting important policies in your establishment where your team will see them.

Do you offer annual anti-harassment training with follow-up refreshers and re-training?

With everything happening in the news, there is no time like the present. These should be as regular as your alcohol awareness classes that take place on a yearly basis in some states.

Do you closely monitor questionable behavior?

Don’t turn a blind eye to inappropriate comments, pictures, or conversations that can be construed as inappropriate in a workplace setting. Ignoring once sets a precedent that can lead to more issues in the future.

Do your employees have a process for addressing harassment and other workplace issues in a confidential, sensitive manner?

It is of the utmost importance that they are provided with the means to do so through a well-constructed and well-implemented plan and process. This may stop inappropriate conduct before it escalates and ultimately creates more problems for individual employees or the company as a whole.

When a complaint is filed with HR or management, do you do your due diligence and take steps to resolve it?

My advice is to take everything seriously—until you take the time to investigate, you won’t know the truth. Good HR practices can end up saving your restaurant and/or hotel in the future and help prevent future lawsuits.

Do you set expectations before all employee functions?

You are responsible for clearly communicating that people must maintain respect and decorum. This is incredibly important to reversing the culture that has taken hold in the industry and ensuring that a new one is born.

When an issue arises, do you seek legal advice?

It is highly recommended that you do so, especially if the situation involves violence. HR and legal services can work in tandem to address the situation and resolve the matter quickly while protecting the business.

Do you lead by example?

If you want to ensure your environment lives and breathes respect, make sure you are the beacon leading the charge.

A hostile work environment is not conducive to productivity, creativity, or career longevity. Therefore, because of the legal and moral predicaments that arise when harassment or assault happens in the workplace, it makes good business sense to adhere to strict protocols.

Yes, harassment in the workplace can affect your bottom line. The emotional and mental toll it can take on your employees can be quite costly. Each year, millions of dollars are lost due to absences, decreased productivity, high employee turnover, low morale, and legal costs―all stemming from harassment. A happy, healthy employee means more profit towards the bottom line and healthier industry as a whole.

At the end of the day, it is your responsibility to make sure you do right by your employees by fostering an environment free of harassment and ensure you don’t have a “touchy” kitchen.


Cleo Clarke is the vice president of human resources strategy and development at Harri. Clarke is a senior human resource professional and has held an executive role in the hospitality industry for more than 15 years.

Cleo Clarke


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