If you work as a waitress or server, you may think that sexual harassment simply comes with the territory – a fact of life for the position and not something you can do much about. You may feel this is even more true when it is customers, not co-workers or managers, doing the harassing.
The fact is that your employer has a duty to take all necessary precautions to prevent harassment and to respond appropriately when you report it. If they fail to take action – or try to punish you or fire you for bringing it up – you may have legal remedies.
Customers behaving badly
In a perfect world, customers should treat you with respect. They should not make inappropriate, lewd comments about your appearance or clothes. They should accept your answer if, for example, you decline a request for a date with them or ask not to be touched.
Unfortunately, that is not always the reality. In an industry survey of female restaurant workers, 80 percent say they’ve been sexually harassed by customers. One-third of female servers say they have been patted, pinched or touched by patrons. Others are pressured for dates or subjected to sexual comments and “hey baby” behavior.
Part of the problem is the tipping system which forces servers to endure inappropriate and demeaning behavior to get better tips. Because base pay for tipped workers has not increased since 1991, many waitresses have to put up with sexual harassment just to earn the pay-plus-tips equivalent of minimum wage.
The employer’s duty to shield servers from harassment
When you report a customer harassment matter to your employer, the expectation is for your supervisor to discuss and resolve the matter with the customer. Sometimes a talk is all it takes, but it may be necessary for management to remover and even bar the abusive customer from the restaurant.
In reality, though, it doesn’t always play out like that. Restaurant managers are under pressure to make money and get good reviews. So rather than risking backlash from customers (and ownership), employees are told to live with it. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Many managers give the best shifts and best tables to attractive servers who are willing to flirt with customers or allow the inappropriate behavior, which perpetuates the problem.
Under the law, employers must take harassment complaints seriously and take steps to stop the harassment and ensure a safe working environment. If they refuse to act – or retaliate – they can be held accountable for monetary damages and other relief.
Employer culture and employer modeling
The culture of your workplace has a lot to do with whether workplace sexual harassment is tolerated or not. For example, an employer that regularly holds training seminars and listens to its employees’ concerns and does something about them has likely fostered a workplace culture in which harassment receives treatment as the serious issue that it is.
In a healthy workplace, harassment is less likely to occur in the first place. When it does, employees feel safe going to their supervisors about the matter.
An employer can create a fearful culture by poor modeling. For example, if the supervisors have the authority to make discriminatory comments and fire people who report harassment, the employer sends the message that harassment is okay. Management can say the right things and pretend to listen to employee concerns, but if supervisors behave badly or condone harassment, it may constitute a hostile work environment, which is actionable.
Florida law grants you certain rights as an employee. It is appropriate and right to seek legal advice if your employer fails to respond properly to your concerns about harassment.