Two weeks ago, prominent Calgary chef and restaurant owner Michael Noble pleaded not guilty to the criminal charge of sexually assaulting a 21-year-old employee at a staff party.
Last week, a coalition of Ottawa restaurants, women’s advocates and unions launched Order’s Up, a public-service campaign that offers online tools for local food-and-beverage workers to anonymously report their experiences of sexual intimidation, harassment and assault.
And this week, the second seminar in a series called Harassment in the Hospitality Industry: Employee Rights and Effective Employer Risk Management was held in Vancouver.
Until recently, the Canadian restaurant industry had escaped relatively unscathed from the #MeToo movement, which prompted an outpouring of allegations and high-profile scandals (Mario Batali, Ken Friedman, John Besh, et al) in the United States. But now, Canada is in for its own reckoning, says Shea Coulson, the Vancouver lawyer who is organizing the legal rights and panel-discussion seminars with local restaurant director Lisa Haley.
“I suspect that this [the Michael Noble case] is just the beginning of a major trend,” says Mr. Coulson, founder and principal of Coulson Litigation, which specializes in hospitality and liquor law.
“The Me Too movement has created a new normative expectation,” Mr. Coulson says. “People who feel they have been harassed are going to be more motivated to actually deal with the issue. There are going to be more allegations, more lawsuits, more criminal charges and a lot of negative press. Is that the reckoning the industry wants? Or is time to be proactive and start solving a problem that has become an epidemic?”
In the United States, from 1995 to 2016, there were more sexual-harassment claims filed by restaurant workers than in any other industry, according to data from the U.S. Equality Employment Opportunity Commission. While there are no comparable statistics for Canada, this country is clearly not immune.
In 2015, for example, the case of Toronto pastry chef Kate Burnham, who filed a harassment complaint with the Ontario Human Right Tribunal against Weslodge restaurant and three of its former chefs, ignited nation-wide discussion around the deplorable behaviour that has become systemic in many kitchens. Ms. Burnham reached a confidential settlement at the tribunal later that year.
Ottawa’s Order’s Up is funded by a Justice Canada grant and supported by Unifor, the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women and the Sexual Assault Network. The campaign was launched by two dozen industry professionals who began meeting after Matt Carmichael, chef and co-owner of several high-profile restaurants (Riviera, Datsun and two El Camino locations) admitted in a statement and in an on-camera interview with CTV last October to sexually harassing three women with inappropriate comments.
The Ottawa collective hasn’t made explicit what it plans to do with any anonymous reports it might gather, but there have been discussions about giving restaurants a letter grade, similar to food safety programs in Toronto and New York. “This will enable patrons to support establishments that offer good anti-harassment policies and reporting procedures,” says Erin Gee, a member of the collective and a co-founder of the Bad + Bitchy Podcast. “We care so much about the food we’re eating in restaurants. Why shouldn’t we also care about the staff who work there?”
The Vancouver group is more concerned with moving the discussion forward by sharing best practices and equipping both employers and employees with a better understanding of their legal rights and responsibilities rather than calling out bad behaviour.
“I’m not perfect,” says Ms. Haley, the director of L’Abattoir and Coquille Seafood restaurant. “I’m sure I’ve said things at work that were wildly inappropriate. But that’s why we’re doing these seminars. So we can all learn together and find the resources to make things better.”
Only 12 people attended this week’s event. “I felt like I was preaching to the choir,” Ms. Haley said afterwards. “This shows that we still have a lot of work to do.”
Both groups point to the hospitality industry’s woeful lack of sophisticated HR practices as a major impediment to effectively dealing with issues of sexual harassment.
In British Columbia, under the Workers’ Compensation Act, employers are legally required to have written anti-harassment policies in place, signed off by everyone. Among other things, these policies must clearly define harassment in plain language that employees can understand (it can’t just be a boilerplate legal document) and specify clear procedures for reporting and investigating complaints, disciplinary action, enforcement, non-retaliation measures and risk management (such as training). While there are subtle differences among provinces, the main principles remain the same.
The vast majority of restaurants – about 80 per cent in Vancouver, Mr. Coulson estimates, based on anecdotal experience – do not have rigorous polices in place. Those that do, he says, usually fall down on the procedural end of things. And hardly any restaurants, except for the large corporate establishments, offer regular anti-harassment training.
“This is an urgent issue,” Mr. Coulson says. “Even if you take away the moral imperative, which is obviously in favour of doing something, it doesn’t make business sense. In this new Me Too era, it’s going to become a massive risk that exposes restaurants to serious legal repercussions, reputational damage and financial loss. By not addressing harassment, restaurant owners could end up with their entire investments blowing up in their face.”