Advances in Hospitality and Tourism Research
Volume III
Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry:
Is There a Difference
Jerome F. Agrusa Department of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management University of Southwestern Louisiana
Wendy Coats Department of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management University of Southwestern Louisiana


The purpose of this research paper is to measure female restaurant employees and male restaurant employees perception and attitudes on sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. By analyzing the responses of the female restaurant employees and male restaurant employees, a better understanding of the similarities and differences among these two distinct employee segments could be obtained. This research paper will try to provide some useful information when it comes to sexual harassment in the restaurant industry and what policies should be implemented.


Sexual harassment is one of the "hot issues" that is plaguing the workplace of today's society. "Sexual harassment is usually defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, when submission to or rejection of such conduct is used as a basis for employment decisions affecting an individual, or where such conduct has the purpose or effect of interfering unreasonably with the individual's work performance, or creates an offensive, hostile or intimidating working environment" (Civil Rights Act of 1964), (Palmer, 1997).  Organizations set forth formal written policies and procedures designed to educate employees about the subject and avoid liability.  Most organizations have made it clear that this type of behavior will not be tolerated. However, what happens to these policies and procedures concerning this behavior when it comes to the working environment of the restaurant industry? Because of the differences in the "hospitality service versus other industries, what may be normal behavior among the restaurant employees may very well be sexual harassment.

Listen to the employees of any restaurant and you will hear tales of sexual behavior, joking and horseplay at work. While most of this behavior is normal social interaction in a service industry, in an office setting this behavior is known as sexual harassment.

The restaurant industry is especially susceptible to incidents of sexual harassing behaviors due to certain social characteristics. The most obvious is that of restaurant's attracting or recruiting employees with "outgoing personalities", especially for the wait staff. Wait staff who have a friendly and outgoing personality usually sell more to the customer which in turn produces higher profits for the restaurant as well as larger tips for the wait staff.  Today, people do not just go to restaurants to eat, but they go to be entertained. One has to just look at the explosion of Theme Restaurants to justify this statement. Due to the high number of people restaurant employees are in contact with on a daily basis whether it be customers or employees, those who have "outgoing or friendly personalities" are likely to be more social. Other social characteristics include the high degree of social contact in the workplace, the unusual hours of work, including long, irregular hours involving evenings and holidays and the involvement with a number of different people in the course of delivering the service. For these reasons, restaurants create a very informal atmosphere (environment) which in the end actually encourages greater intimacy with co-workers.

Despite the education and awareness training that has been conducted, human resource professionals feel the biggest problem with this issue is that the majority of employees and managers are still unsure about what constitutes sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can be a confusing issue for many people because anything that is "unwelcome" can be determined in the mind of the receiver. "An important factor to understand in determining whether a behavior can be sexual harassment is that what matters most is how the behavior makes another person feel." (Business & Legal Reports, Inc.). In other words, what may be considered a harassing behavior to one person may be simple social interaction to another. "The line between work and social interaction in a restaurant setting can easily be blurred. And that makes monitoring harassment all the more difficult". (Anders, 1993). And in the restaurant industry, where there is a lot of socializing between co-workers this is most difficult to determine where to draw the line. Part of the confusion lies in the vagueness of the law itself.

As defined by the EEOC in 1980, there are two different categories of sexual harassment. The first, quid pro quo harassment, occurs when an individual's acceptance or rejection of sexual advances that are made as a condition of keeping ones position at work or to have a promotion granted. This type of sexual harassment is essentially a power game. The second type of sexual harassment is that of "hostile environment". "A hostile environment exists wherever employees are exposed to persistent and unwelcome lewd remarks, sexual taunting, talking in seductive tones, quarries about one's personal life, suggestive sounds, obscene gestures, pinching, touching and references to anatomy and physical appearance by anyone entrusted with control of company policy if the acts were performed in the execution of a corporate function". (Sherry 1995).

Sexual harassment does not only have to happen from management to employees or from employees to employees it can come in the form of delivery men, clients or customers and even service personnel in your establishment. This is known as third party sexual harassment. "Don't make the mistake of thinking that because sexual harassment isn't happening within the wall of your firm, you're off the hook. According to Title VII of the civil Rights Act of 1964, employers are liable for any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that occurs within the work environment" (Laabs, July 1995).

Sexual harassment can take many forms from a variety of personnel and management, as well as employees who have to be aware of "what is sexual harassment? It is far more than physical assault or a demand for sex in order to retain a job or be promoted. It can be


The following study posed a series of demographic, work experience and sexual harassment perception questions to both male and female restaurant employees. The purpose of the study was to better understand what restaurant employees perceive is sexual harassment whether by manager, co-worker or customer. The survey instrument contained 20 questions to parallel debates and findings developed through a literature review of similar research.

The survey included a total of 5 demographic questions, one work history question and 14 sexual harassment perception questions.

To assure content validity, the 20 question survey was designed by researchers with expertise in the Human Resources of the restaurant industry. Once developed, the questionnaire was pre-tested to a group of 24 students enrolled in the Hotel, Restaurant  and Tourism Management Program in the School of Human Resources at Southwestern Louisiana University.

The finalized version of the study was distributed to exactly 100 restaurant employees in the city of Lafayette, Louisiana.  Survey distribution was conducted exclusively at five, full service restaurants with equal distribution, each restaurant receiving 20 surveys. This research article presents key findings from many of the questions developed in the survey.

Of the 100 surveys that were distributed there were 72 useable surveys returned. Of the surveys that were returned, 46% of the respondents were female, while 54% of the respondents were male.

Respondents age:  Respondents to this question were asked to select from five age specific response categories. Respondents were asked to indicate their age by selecting from 18 years or less, 19-21 years, 22-25 years, 26-30 years, and 31 years or older. This information was then cross-tabulated for female and male respondents.

By analyzing the midpoint for each of these responses (and assuming the same ratio for the low and high end responses,) it was possible to develop an overall weighted average for both females and males alike. The weighted average age of female respondents was 21.6 years. The weighted average age of male respondents was 23.9 years.

Table 1. 
Average Age
Respondent's Age % Female Responses % Male Responses
17 years or less 9.1 0.0
18 - 21 54.5 30.8
22 - 25 27.3 48.7
26 - 29 6.1 12.8
30 years or older 3.0 7.7

An overwhelming majority (80.5%) of the respondents have indicated they are between the ages of 18 and 25 years old.

Formal Education: Male and female respondents where asked to identify their highest level of formal education. Their responses are as follows:

Table 2. 
Education Level
Respondents Education level % Female Responses % Male Responses
Some High School 0.0 5.1
High School Diploma 21.2 7.6
Some College 72.7 74.4
Completed a 4 year degree 6.1 10.3
Other 0.0 2.6

* 73.5% of the respondents when describing their highest level of formal education had responded to some college.

Sexual Harassment occurs more often in the Restaurant Industry? This question sought to understand the perception of the respondents that sexual harassment occurs more often in the restaurant industry than in other industries.

Respondents were asked if they felt that sexual harassment occurs more often in the restaurant industry than in other industries. Over 60%, (60.6%) of the respondents stated that they felt sexual harassment occurs more often in the restaurant industry than other industries. The female respondents overwhelmingly agreed with almost 70% (69.6%), stating that sexual harassment occurs more often in the restaurant industry than other industries. Over one halve{ (52.6%) of the male respondents also agreed with the majority of the female respondents that sexual harassment occurs more often in the restaurant industry than other industries.

Sexual Harassment is more accepted in the restaurant industry? When asked if sexual harassment is more acceptable in the restaurant industry than in other industries, 71.4% of the respondents felt sexual harassment is more accepted than in other industries. Over 80% (80.6%) of the female respondents and 64.1% of the male respondents feel that sexual harassment is more acceptable in the restaurant industry than in other industries.

Employees dating in the workplace. Respondents were asked their perception on the following statement and questions. In the workplace, if two employees are dating each other it could be considered sexual harassment. Do you feel that this would constitute sexual harassment in the restaurant industry?

 By assigning a Likert scale value to each of the five response categories, it was possible to develop an overall weighted average level of impact from the presence of gaming on respondents' decisions to visit a state for business or pleasure. The Likert values assigned: I to "strong negative impact," 2 to "slight negative impact," 3 to "no impact." 4 to "slight positive impact," and 5 to "strong positive impact."

Table 3. 
Two Employees Dating
% Female Responses % Males Responses
Strongly Agree 9.1 0.0
Agree 0.0 7.7
Neither Agree or Disagree 6.1 12.8
Disagree 45.4 33.3
Strongly Disagree 39.4 46.2

* The mean of whether workplace dating constitutes sexual harassment was 4.24. In other words, the majority of both male and female respondents disagree that workplace dating constitutes sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment policy in the workplace. Respondents were asked if the restaurant they are currently employed at have a sexual harassment policy, their choices were: yes, no or unsure. Almost one third, (32.9%) of the respondents answered no or unsure. In other words, over one third of the employees stated that they were uninformed of a sexual harassment policy in the restaurant where they are employed.

Table 4.
Sexual Harassment Policy
% Female Responses % Males Responses
Yes 64.5 69.2
No 3.2 10.3
Unsure 32.3 20.5

Sexually harassed at work.  Employees were asked if they have ever felt they were sexually harassed at work by a customer, manager or co-worker and over 30% (30.9%) of the respondents stated yes.  Female respondents stated they have felt sexually harassed by a customer, manager or co-worker 42.4%, with 21.2% of the male respondents having a similar experience.

Table 5.
Felt Sexually Harassed at Work
% Female Responses % Male Responses
Yes 42.4 21.1
No 57.6 78.9


Today our society is a litigation society and restaurant owners and managers have to take a pro-active roll in preventing sexual harassment law suits. With over 30.9% of the restaurant employees surveyed perceive that they have been sexually harassed at work at sometime during their employment and over four out often (42.4%) of the female employees stating they have felt sexually harassed while at work, potential lawsuits are looming. While all the restaurants that were used in this study where the survey's were conducted do have a sexual harassment policy, almost one third (32.9%) of the restaurant employees stated that the restaurant where they are currently employed did not have or were unsure of a sexual harassment policy.

Management and owners have to do a better job of informing their employees of the restaurants sexual harassment policies. One way that restaurant owners and managers can limit their liability in sexual harassment lawsuits is to take reasonable precautions by following EEOC guidelines related to sexual harassment such as issuing a policy prohibiting sexual harassment, establishing grievance procedures, establish a procedure for corroborating a change and establish discipline for violations.  By making certain that all employees are aware of the restaurants sexual harassment policy, in case of a sexual harassment claim, the policy can be used to document the restaurants proactive stance. A way of assuring that all employees are aware of the sexual harassment policy is to have the sexual harassment policies posted so that it is in plain view of all employees, as well as have all employees and supervisors sign a form that they are aware of the sexual harassment policies for the restaurant.  This may seem like a lot of unnecessary paperwork, but it could save your restaurant when a sexual harassment lawsuit is filed.


Anders, K. T. (1993). Who's Harassing Whom In Restaurants. Restaurant Business, January 20, 1993, pp.46-54.

Business and Legal Reports, Inc. (1995). Pocket Guide to Preventing Sexual Harassment,November 1996 Edition, p.15.

Laabs, J. (1995). What To Do When Sexual Harassment comes Calling. Personnel Journal, July 1995, pp.42-53.

Palmer, R. A. (1997). Sexual Harassment at School: New Concerns for Colleges and Universities. Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Education, Vol.9, pp. 76-78.

Sherry, J. (1995). Employer Liability for GM's Sexual Harassment. Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, August 1995, pp. 16-17.

Verespej, M. A. (1995). New-Age Sexual Harassment. Industry Week, May 15, 1995, pp.64-68.

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