Restaurant staff are not just helpless workplace victims

Kitchens and dining areas are full of people who know and pursue their rights

Restaurant owners are not tyrants and most employees are not their hapless, helpless victims.

Restaurant owners are not tyrants and most employees are not their hapless, helpless victims.

 

Bullying and harassment exist in all industries and in all workplaces. And the hospitality industry may be especially susceptible to such behaviour: the faux social environment of the kitchen; the disinhibiting effect of alcohol; and the literal “pressure cooker” that is the professional kitchen.

But it is not correct to say – as recently claimed at an Oireachtas committee, that workers are not aware of their rights and that there is low regulation in the industry.

Dr Deirdre Curran of NUI Galway told the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection earlier this month that “there is an endemic culture of ill-treatment within the industry and unfortunately an acceptance by workers that there is nothing they can do or this is how it is”.

She paints business owners in hospitality as tyrants, and most employees their hapless, helpless victims.

Our experience as a business is that employees are well-versed on their rights and rightfully willing to insist on them. Furthermore, the legal protections are already in place. The same laws apply to everyone, not just those working in hospitality; there is a suite of legislation and codes of practice available to protect employees and an agency tasked with policing enforcement of their rights, namely the National Employment Rights Agency.

Those laws include the Employment Equality Acts, the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act and the Unfair Dismissals Acts.

Harassment vs bullying

The definition of harassment is wide, not limited to physical behaviour, and framed subjectively, so that it captures the effect on the individual and how the impugned behaviour made that person feel. Unlike bullying, harassment does not have to be repeated and just one incident can constitute harassment.

Employers may be liable for harassment of one employee by another unless they can show that they took reasonable steps to prevent such harassment. So all employers have a responsibility to implement safe systems at work, and to talk to their staff about respect and dignity at work. Not all do, I’m sure – when I was an employee, I was never sat down for a chat on dignity at work.

We do our best to look out for our staff, to innovate, to train, and to support them while running our businesses

Employees can bring a claim in relation to harassment to the Workplace Relations Commission. Importantly there is no length-of-service requirement. There are no cost barriers to making a claim – it is free to do so and there is no need for legal representation. If the claim is upheld, redress may be awarded in the amount of up to two years’ salary or such amount as is just and equitable. There is no requirement to show financial loss.

With fantastic online resources such as such as citizensinformation.ie and workplacerelations.ie – two government-funded websites – the idea that employees do not know their rights under the law is not credible.

Scarce resources

Further, in today’s market, the proposition that employees are afraid they will lose their job just doesn’t stack up. If I’m honest, I believe that high demand for staff is part of the story of shifting attitudes and improving conditions in the industry over the past 10 years. But this is true not just for hospitality but in other sectors where employers are introducing options such as flexi-working, four-day weeks and other work-life balance initiatives not out of the goodness of their hearts but in a bid to compete for scarce human resources.

Most of the employers in the industry are small, family-owned operations. Unlike large food chain outlets or corporations, these businesses don’t tend to have dedicated human resources departments. But I’m speaking for myself and for other restaurateurs that I know, when I say we take our obligations seriously and strive to be compliant. We do our best to look out for our staff, to innovate, to train, and to support them while running our businesses in an extremely challenging, highly regulated market. This isn’t some altruistic endeavour, it’s a matter of survival – every member of staff lost represents a wasted investment in training, team-building and recruitment costs.

In our own business, we recognise in conversation and training with our staff that we don’t just come to work for the money, but because the job is important to our sense of ourselves – it is a place to just concentrate on what we are good at. That doesn’t mean hanging out and having the “lols”, or that we don’t shout at each other or that there are no tears, no pressure and no criticism. But we do our best to be mindful that we are all fragile and that we must be respectful of each other. Sometimes we fail.

As a solicitor, as a business owner, as a human animal and as a female, I’ve witnessed harassment of others by employers, by customers and by employees (as well as by agents of the State). But equally, I’ve seen incredible acts of kindness, dedication, decency and respect by employers, by customers and by employees.

Please don’t tar us all with the same brush.

Angela Ruttledge is a restaurant owner and solicitor

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