How the combination of our service and tip cultures leads to



Between 70% and 90% of restaurant servers and bartenders have likely experienced sexual harassment, whether it is unwanted comments and stares, meeting requests or physical contact, by customers. There are also many anecdotal indications that the behavior has escalated during the pandemic, with servers reporting what is now known as “masked harassment”: Servers are asked to remove their masks and show their faces for the better. gratification of clients.

A new study aims to understand the reason for sexual harassment in the hospitality industry, and the findings indicate a response rooted in the combination of two common building blocks of industry in America: worker reliance on tips and expectations to provide. “cheerful service with a smile” at all times. These two elements together – financial dependence and emotional deference to customers – create a power dynamic that puts customers in a comfortable position to make sexualized gestures towards their waiters. The researchers suggest that employers could significantly reduce instances of this behavior by eliminating just one of the two factors.

The study, conducted by professors from Penn State, Notre Dame and Emlyon Business School in Lyon, France, was based on a theory proposed by a 2015 study, which suggested that examples of structural power – like tip addiction – only activate a sense of domination among individuals when an element of “deferential behavior” is added to the mix. In the service sector, that deference can take the form of a smile, says Tim Kundro, assistant professor of management and organization at Notre Dame. “Smiling is really just an explicit form of deference,” he says. The researchers replicated the model to test whether, in a service setting, smiling would activate a switch that would give customers a sense of control over the server, which could increase the chances of sexual harassment.

To test the theory, the researchers conducted both a survey, from the perspective of employees, and an experiment, from the perspective of customers. The survey included 92 hospitality workers, including waiters, cashiers and hotel workers, who were asked about their experiences of sexual harassment, as well as their use of tips and employers’ demands. of “service with a smile”.

But self-declaration has its limits. Thus, in the experimentation part, the participants acted as customers in a restaurant scene set up with different manipulations to test together the financial and deferential elements. They were given copies of receipts, signaling that the waiter was heavily dependent on tips and asking for tips, or explaining that the restaurant paid fair wages and that while tips were appreciated, they were not necessary – which Kundro calls “more of a European approach” to tipping. They were also shown pictures of a waiter, who was smiling or displaying a neutral facial expression. Participants read a script of exchanges with the hypothetical waiter. (All participants were male and showed pictures of women, to recreate the typical harassment dynamic; and all of the waiters shown in the photos were white, to eliminate any influence of racial attitudes.)

They were then asked about the encounter to determine how they perceived the power dynamics. First, they were explicitly asked if they thought they had power over the server, to which the response was not that strong, which the researchers said was expected, as people probably wouldn’t want to admit it consciously. But, they were then implicitly asked about power, saying whether they agreed or disagreed with statements such as, “If I asked her for her phone number, she would probably give it to me,” “If I told her she was attractive, she would probably be delighted ”, and“ If I asked her out she would probably say yes. The researchers found that among those who faced both tips and smiling services, the feeling of power was heightened. They were uninhibited towards the waiter and believed that “whatever they ask for, they will end up receiving it in some form or another,” Kundro says.

The relevance of the study is that it offers a clue as to what employers could do to help reduce instances of sexual harassment against their employees: namely, says Alicia Grandey, professor of psychology at Penn State, to change the ‘one or the other of the two factors. They could pay a fair wage, not to eliminate tips, but to reduce overdependence on the customer for a large chunk of server income. Or, they might rethink their expectations for joyful service. These are structural issues themselves, in companies that do not pay employees well or have too high service expectations. But, that they can create a climate of sexual harassment adds to the impetus to change management methods. “Our idea is that when we, as customers, see that smile, it activates awareness of this power differential,” says Grandey. “This is what creates the likelihood of abusing power from the customer’s point of view. “

Kundro points out that the theory shouldn’t be used to blame service workers for habits, like smiling naturally. “We’re really very careful not to blame the on-duty employee,” he said, “-“ hey, you get sexually harassed for smiling. Rather, the study is meant to take a perspective direction, to ask whether organizations that expect constant “emotional labor” from servers are inadvertently problematic. “Regardless, that might not really be a problem,” he says, but “coupled with the tip requirements, it really creates a sense of empowerment in customers.”

While eliminating service with a smile may seem out of step with what we expect as bar and restaurant patrons, Grandey emphasizes that not smiling is not the same as being rude, and that An “exaggerated smile” is not necessary to give friendly, efficient and attentive service. And, “Right now, with the masks, it’s a great time to ask that question,” she says. She’s working on an update to the study that asks workers about incidents of sexual harassment during the pandemic. From the initial data: “It doesn’t appear that masking versus non-masking made a big difference in customer feedback,” she says, “suggesting that it may not be. really the smile that really matters. Direct eye contact, for example, can be more valuable and less respectful than smiling.

Employers aside, if clients are generally more aware of the potential of a power dynamic in such scenarios, we might be more willing to change our behavior when we are served. “It’s not the right people and the wrong people,” she said, “it’s just how the situation can be adjusted.” Ultimately, she and her team wanted to shine a light on sexual harassment in the hospitality industry, as it is often overlooked in the #metoo pro-business talk in American companies. “[That] looks a lot more like a cover story, ”she says. “It’s just ordinary people who interact with service workers. It’s not like the CEO of a company.


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