What if Diners Had a Code of Conduct?

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#86this: Main Menu

By Katie Abbondanza
illustration by joanna Neborsky

It's clear restaurants can no longer operate as safe havens where men can harass and abuse women. As the discussion about how the industry can fix these issues continues, I find myself looking out over the bar, into the dining room, wondering when we’ll begin to seriously examine guest behavior.

In my work as a server, I feel lucky that the majority of my interactions with customers are positive—I enjoy meeting new people, talking about food, and trying my best to be hospitable. (Like anyone else in any profession, I make mistakes though, admittedly, mine run the risk of showing up on Yelp.) My bosses and colleagues are supportive, and I consider many of them, and some regulars, my friends. As a married white woman with a master’s degree, I know I’m in a place of privilege on the restaurant floor and beyond. Still, on certain days, as I’m shuttling drinks and weaving my way around guests, it feels like my body is on the line. Even in my jeans and oversized shirt, I feel exposed, unsure who I might encounter and what they might do.

Last month, Eater published an article about the pervasiveness of customer harassment, citing a Restaurant Opportunities Center United report that found “78 percent of restaurant workers had been harassed at one time by a customer.” Like nearly everyone in the industry, I’ve dealt with this inappropriate behavior, from a customer trying to stick a credit card down my shirt when my hands were full to people making comments about my body. When are we, the restaurant-loving public, going to say that these kinds of actions, and worse, are no longer acceptable?

While restaurants internally grapple with H.R. issues, guest protocols, tipping policies, and how to deal with the harassers among us, diners must also look at their own behavior, and the words and actions of those sitting next to them. In our restaurant culture, good hospitality is clearly, but broadly, defined. What remains murky is society’s expectations of the customer, and how they can create safer workplaces for those serving them.

Here, I’m proposing a code of conduct as a way to continue the conversation about what it means to be a responsible patron. I don’t aim to speak for all servers, and I’m not speaking on behalf of my employer, but I hope we’ll begin to more seriously discuss what’s acceptable and what’s not in our bars and restaurants. (While I realize this could easily become a debate about tipping practices, I wanted to focus on our current moment and what hospitality workers are dealing with right now.)

Flirting shouldn’t be an expectation

Even in its important exposé on restaurateur Ken Friedman, The New York Times included these troubling lines: “Experienced servers accept that flirting is sometimes part of securing a good tip.” It’s time to change that outdated way of thinking, on both sides of the table. In other words, just because the staff is being nice to you/standing in front of you/smiling at you, it isn’t a cue that they want an invitation to join you and your date. It’s hospitality, and that’s part of the job.

Harassment won’t be tolerated

“To a point, as a server, you’re expected to meet all of the guests’ needs, even when it might put you in an awkward position,” says Becky Burke, a hospitality law teacher, a co-chair of Slow Food Charleston, and a bartender who has been in the food and beverage industry for 15 years. “I’ve never seen a sexual harassment policy that talks about when you’re being harassed by a guest, it’s always about the workplace, with coworkers. [Harassment from guests] shouldn’t be something that’s tolerated.”

Pim Techamuanvivit, the chef and restaurateur of the Michelin-starred Kin Khao in San Francisco, recently tweeted, “It doesn't take an expensive HR department to be responsive to complaints and hold harassers responsible. It takes a restaurant culture that is willing to hold them accountable. It takes you: restaurant owners, chefs, investors, even patrons, not turning the blind eye to abuse.”

Don’t touch the staff

Most people know it’s inappropriate to grab at a server or grope a host, but guests often cross other physical boundaries with restaurant workers, whether it’s an arm around the waist, a hand on the shoulder, or latching onto a hand for emphasis. As a server, I want the people I’m helping to feel comfortable around me, to be able to speak up if something is wrong, but I also want my personal space to be mine. Would you wrap your arms around a client in the middle of a business meeting?

Leave the sexualized language at the door (or at least out of earshot)

From pet names to sexual jokes to crude comments, servers deal with all kinds of demeaning language that would be considered inappropriate in other workplaces. “People don’t realize how stressful being a server is, especially in fine dining [where the expectations of employees are extremely high],” says Burke. “If someone’s calling you pet names and asking you out, it’s hard to meet these standards.”

Intervene if you see bad behavior

Servers are often taught to avoid saying using the word “no” with guests (“Unfortunately…” “Instead, we’re offering…” “Tonight we have…”) and other linguistic tricks so diners don't feel slighted. While that type of language might be helpful from a customer-service perspective, it can make it hard to later extract oneself from uncomfortable situations. Guests should consider speaking up if they see out-of-line behavior happening, even if it’s from someone in their own party.

“Bystander intervention is something that’s being used a lot at colleges, in order to prevent assault,” says Caroline Richter, a server/bartender in New Orleans and the president of Shift Change, an organization formed to educate restaurants about sexual harassment and to create a community to keep the conversation about harassment going.

“It doesn’t matter who it is,” Richter continues. “If you’re with somebody who is touching the waitress or making a sexual joke or doing something that’s clearly making that person uncomfortable, you should call them out.”

Beware the commentary on our appearances

From remarks on our bodies to our life decisions (like whether or not to have children) to our educational statuses, servers and restaurant staff deal with countless inquiries about our personal lives. While some patrons might have good intentions, it can be uncomfortable, or much worse, to be on the receiving end of some of these questions and remarks.

A minor example: When asked about my menu favorites, I used to mention a salad in my short list. I’ve since stopped (or I make a half joke about it, Haha, I’m here a lot, so I have to get my veggies in…), because I realized all too often, it would lead directly to a comment about my weight. While many of us want to connect with guests, to make the experience enjoyable and human, not robotic, it shouldn’t come at the expense of one side feeling uncomfortable.

As Richter says, “Keep in mind, we're trying to be professional. You wouldn’t comment on your secretary’s boobs. Or at least hopefully not. You also shouldn’t comment on your waitress’ boobs, because we’re here to work for you.”

Remember: this is still a workplace

Having fun and relaxing in a restaurant shouldn’t be at odds with being respectful of those waiting on you. Techamuanvivit says she’s refused to seat people or serve them another drink because of the way they’ve treated the staff. (“It doesn’t happen every day, but it has happened.”)

When I asked her what other managers and restaurateurs could do to ensure their teams feels safe, she emphasizes the importance of taking action if an employee speaks up. She says, “You have to show that you’re willing to lose business if somebody is being inappropriate with one of your servers.”

Perhaps now that restaurants are finally being made to confront the issue of harassment at the hands of owners and chefs, other leaders within the industry might be more willing to deal with patrons who are creating problems under the same roof.

As a guest, you might not be at work when you walk into the dining room, but many of us are punched in. And we’re hoping to go home tonight, untouched.


Katie Abbondanza is a writer, server, and occasional bartender. She is currently at work on her first YA novel. 


Joanna Neborsky is an illustrator and animator. Her first book, Illustrated Three-Line Novels: Félix Fénéon, featured darkly humorous news clips from turn-of-the-century France. Most recently, she illustrated A Proust Questionnaire, a modern twist on the classic personality quiz. Her work regularly appears in The New York Times and The Nation. She lives in Los Angeles. 


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Rachele Morino