Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry

Sexual harassment may plague the restaurant industry more than any other.1 Habitual harassment of service workers can occur by supervisors, co-workers, and customers. Complaints by servers to their managers, reporting a customer’s inappropriate behavior, can often be tossed to the side as the well-known slogan “the customer’s always right” forces the server to tolerate the behavior.

 A recent study by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that two thirds of women in the restaurant industry had experienced sexual harassment from managers.2 Moreover, 80% of the women surveyed had experienced sexual harassment from co-workers, and 80% experienced sexual harassment from customers.3  “Women in tipped occupations experience the highest rates of sexual harassment from management, co-workers, and customers compared to men and their non-tipped counterparts.”4 “Although restaurant workers make up only 7% of women in the workforce, restaurant workers accounted for 37% of the sexual harassment complaints brought by women to the EEOC.”5

On April 13, 2020, in response to a lawsuit filed on behalf of a female server against her former employer, the owner of three Cincinnati based Asian restaurants, a representative for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) declared that “Restaurants must protect their employees from harassment.”6

Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There are two forms of sexual harassment. The first is called quid pro quo harassment, which is “harassment that is directly linked to the grant or denial of a tangible economic benefit.”7  An example of quid pro quo harassment is when a supervisor requires sexual favors from an employee in exchange for continued employment or a benefit like a promotion, or denies the employee benefits unless the sexual demands are met.

The second form of sexual harassment is termed “hostile environment” harassment. “A plaintiff may establish a violation of Title VII by proving that discrimination based on sex has created a hostile or abusive work environment. To do so, the plaintiff must show that the harassing conduct was ‘sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.’”8 Sexually abusive workplace behavior is not excusable, regardless of whether the conduct is perceived as common or acceptable and generally engaged in by others in your place of employment.9   

If you believe you have been victim of sexual misconduct in the workplace, you may have a viable claim for sexual harassment. It is important to know your rights, and educate yourself on what sexual harassment is and what you can do to protect yourself if sexual harassment occurs in the workplace.

3 Id.
4 Id.
5 ESSAY: Workplace Violence and Harassment of Low-Wage Workers*, * This Essay is based on a presentation given at the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice’s fall 2013 symposium, “Working for Change: Low-Wage Earners at the Tipping Point.” Established in 1999, the Center produces and fosters creative scholarship that examines the law through a lens of social justice, and works in partnership with communities to provide education to the general public., 36 Berkeley J. Emp. & Lab. L. 169
7 Hampel v. Food Ingredients Specialties, 89 Ohio St.3d 169, 2000-Ohio-128, 729 N.E.2d 726 (2000).
8 Id.
9 Id.