Preventing sexual harassment in the hospitality sector

Employers wanting to create a sustainable workforce must act now, urge Catriona Aldridge and Melanie Lane

Credit: Willie B. Thomas/Getty Images

A new hospitality-focused checklist to help employers prevent sexual harassment at work has been published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and UKHospitality. The checklist and action plan highlights sector-specific scenarios in which harassment may occur, such as power imbalances and lone working, and then suggests practical preventative measures.  

While harassment can happen in any workplace, there are factors specific to the hospitality sector that increase workers’ exposure to sexual harassment; in particular, the regular interactions with customers and working at events where alcohol is consumed.

In 2018, Unite reported the preliminary results of a survey that found nine out of 10 hospitality staff had experienced sexual harassment at work. Since then, the #MeToo movement has seen a shift in attitudes towards sexual harassment at work. Similarly, in recent years, the hospitality sector has increasingly taken steps to protect its employees from abuse from colleagues and customers. 

For a sector facing acute staff shortages, being known as an employer that will not tolerate abuse of workers by customers or colleagues is another part of the armoury for attracting and retaining talent. However, preventing workplace harassment is also an investment in reducing risk. The reputational risk, legal fees and potential payouts attached to harassment claims mean that risk in this area should be prioritised in the same way as other corporate governance risks.

Sexual harassment can occur in many ways. It can include the creation of an offensive environment, but it also covers any unwanted conduct of a sexual nature. It may be a one-off remark or a course of conduct. Liability can arise even if the perpetrator did not intend to harass the recipient, but it had the effect of doing so. 

The EHRC/UKHospitality checklist focuses on three main areas employers should consider at each part of the day, and looks at steps that can be taken before, during and after a shift:

  • Communicating with staff: how to promote a culture of zero tolerance and let staff know that any sexual harassment will be taken seriously.

  • Changing the work environment: how to control the environment that people are working in to make it as safe as possible.

  • Working practices: policies and procedures to be put in place so employers are prepared to deal with sexual harassment when it happens.

Practical issues drawn out in the checklist that are specific to the hospitality sector include:

  • Has the employer made sure that staff who have control over the hours of junior workers, including the rota and opportunities to get tips, do not abuse this power in a way that would allow sexual harassment to happen?

  • If resourcing allows, can the employer make sure that nobody is exposed to risks such as working alone?

  • What changes can be made in customer-facing front of house roles, as well as back of house roles, to minimise the risk of sexual harassment occurring?

  • Can the employer survey staff to understand if they feel vulnerable or exposed in certain situations and then take action to reduce those risks?

  • Does the employer have a process in place on how to deal with a customer who harasses a member of staff? This may include warning systems, asking them to leave or permanently banning them from the venue.

The checklist ends with a monitoring log for employers to use to keep progress under review, reinforcing the message that it is not enough just to print off the checklist and stick it up in a back office. 

For hospitality employers that wish to create a sustainable workforce, now is the time to act.

Catriona Aldridge and Melanie Lane are employment partners at CMS