Over the past several months, sexual harassment has been in the headlines and top of mind for many business owners. The deluge of people in the entertainment industry sharing their stories, the rise of the #MeToo movement, and the countless online think pieces have spotlighted what is and has been a pervasive issue in society for as long as most can remember—sexual harassment.
It’s important for hoteliers to be aware of the institutional issues that lead to harassment, as well as how they can best support employees who are victimized and report wrongdoing. Andria Ryan, partner at Fisher Phillips, a law firm that specializes in workplace issues, says that in the 30 years she’s been practicing law, she’s never seen the needle move when it comes to reducing sexual harassment. “We’ve been doing harassment training in workplaces—both hospitality and others—for decades. The number of harassment claims filed each year isn’t changing. We need to take a step back and figure out, what we can do, in general, to be better about this. To get out in front of it,” she describes.
According to Ebony Tucker, advocacy director at the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, the first step toward a safe work environment is creating a culture in which employees are respected and harassment is not tolerated. This applies to harassment from fellow employees, as well as hotel guests. “It is extremely important for victims of violence to feel supported and to know that they won’t be subjected to a hostile work environment just for reporting abuse,” she explains. “And, if you create an environment where allegations are taken seriously, that will also affect the way guests and employees interact. Employees will be more likely to report inappropriate behavior by guests and will feel safer knowing that their employer cares enough to stop abuse they experience.”
Ryan adds that hoteliers need to recognize their more vulnerable populations, such as young workers and foreign-born workers. “These workers don’t want to speak up, or they don’t know how. Pay special attention to these groups, and make sure they feel safe and know how to communicate with you if something does happen.”
It’s also important for hospitality employers to realize that sexual harassment runs on a continuum, which includes everything from inappropriate jokes to sexual assault and rape. “Most employers see the lower level offensive comments and jokes in their offices, but don’t move to stop this behavior. That’s a mistake,” Tucker explains. “The inappropriateness leads to an office culture where people are uncomfortable and don’t feel like they could report something offensive. If people don’t feel comfortable in their workspaces, it sets the stage for escalating inappropriate and abusive behavior.”
The hospitality industry already has a good record when it comes to handling sexual harassment. “At its core, the hotel industry is about people, which is why we are committed to creating a safe environment for both our employees and guests. The overwhelming majority of hotels have policies and procedures in place to deal with these issues,” Brian Crawford, senior vice president and head of government affairs at the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA), says. “Additionally, AHLA provides our membership with tools and resources that can supplement the materials already provided by brands and management companies.”
Both Tucker and Ryan agree, and stress that hoteliers must take advantage of similar resources and do everything in their power to create a safe and respectful environment for their staff. “It is not employees’ responsibility to make workplaces safe; it’s employers’ responsibility to do so,” Tucker says.
Ryan adds, “Hoteliers need to step in if an employee is being abused or harassed. That is their responsibility as an employer—to protect employees from such conduct, stop it from happening again and protect them from retaliation for reporting harassment.”
As hoteliers continue to tackle this problem, moving forward with empathy and support for their staff is imperative. “Listen to people, take complaints seriously, and respect the requests of victims. These are all actions that lead to a strong workplace culture of inclusion and respect,” Tucker says.