New studies accuse tipping and service with a smile of fueling sexual harassment


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New research has linked the high incidence of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry to a combination of two longstanding company traditions: encouraging employees to smile and making servers depend on tips for a much of their pay.

The findings come from two related studies conducted by researchers affiliated with three universities. The academics’ findings are likely to fuel claims by workers’ rights advocates that restaurants should be denied the legal right to count servers’ tips as part of their owed wages. Groups such as the union-backed One Fair Wage are pushing the federal government to scrap the so-called tip credit nationwide. Concessioning to employers is already prohibited in seven states.

The Biden administration has repeatedly shown support for ending tipping credit by federal law, a change that would dramatically increase labor costs for restaurant employers who are already increasing their pay scales due to serious recruiting challenges as the pandemic wanes.

The new interconnected studies were conducted jointly by researchers from the University of Notre Dame, Pennsylvania State University and Emlyon Business School in France. They to some extent validate the findings of previous research by labor rights advocates, albeit in much less inflammatory language.

A 2018 report from Restaurant Opportunity Centers, for example, concluded that the number one reason servers were harassed was their reliance on tips. He also called the industry’s reliance on tips sexist, as the majority of servers are women.

The Notre Dame-led research breaks new ground by basing its findings on the perspectives of customers as well as the memories and perceptions of servers.

First, the team asked 92 servers for information on how much of their income came from tips; if their employers expect them to adopt a smiling and pleasant attitude; what power they think they can exercise against customers acting inappropriately; and whether they have been sexually harassed at work. Sixty-six percent said they had experienced inappropriate behavior in the previous six months.

In the second study, 229 men were recruited to provide the perspective of customers. Attendees were served by waitresses with varying facial expressions. The men were told about their server’s reliance on tips for sustenance, with the degree varying for comparison.

The men were then asked how capable they felt of taking liberties with the maids.

“Our findings for each [study] were the same – employees who rely on tips face more sexual harassment, but only when required to engage in ‘service with a smile’,” said Timothy Kundro, assistant professor of management and organization at the Mendoza College of Business at Notre Dame. He was the lead author of the study.

“Service employees’ reliance on guidance and demands for customer-friendly displays leads to customers feeling a heightened sense of empowerment, which can lead them to engage in sexual harassment,” Kundro concluded in a prepared statement.

The restaurant industry has a long-standing reputation as a business with a high incidence of sexual harassment. According to data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, restaurant workers report more complaints of sexual harassment than employees in any other US industry. However, the industry is also the second largest private sector employer in the country, behind healthcare.

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