There is no shortage of news regarding inappropriate, and in some cases – illegal behavior in restaurants and kitchens. Where it exists it must be stopped and dealt with in no uncertain terms. Treating people with disrespect, gender bias, unprofessional advances, and bullying cannot be tolerated – it is not how we want our industry to be viewed and it is not the type of environment that those of us who want to be considered “professional” can remain associated with.
Recent allegations against prominent chefs and restaurateurs has brought shame on our industry that spent the past few decades building an image of importance, respect, and intrigue. Bad players have now allowed the general public to begin assuming that the industry, as a whole, is seedy and out of control. Are there examples of such behavior – yes, of course there are. If you have been involved in the restaurant business for a few decades then you have probably worked in operations that were guilty of misconduct and inappropriate behavior, but if you are truly a professional you found a way to move further from those environments and when in a position of authority worked hard to create a different place for people to work.
Do not confuse movement away from profane and inappropriate environments as a “softening” of what it takes to be successful in a kitchen. You can, and must find a balance between the two – they are not mutually exclusive. There is a difference between being firm and focused and being condescending and insulting. There is a difference between a light, friendly environment where people joke and enjoy working and one where comments and actions are viewed as threatening and vile. No one should have to come to work with apprehensions about their physical safety, their emotional wellbeing, or their job security based on inappropriate advances by supervisors or co-workers. This is not how a business gains respect, or how a person builds his or her reputation in a professional world.
Harassment and hostility towards others whether it is gender based, experience based, ethnic or racially based, is plain wrong, and illegal. The environment that breeds this type of behavior starts at the top – this is where the example is set or where it is permitted. Chefs and restaurateurs need to set the tone for excellence and professionalism if they are to expect the same from the rank and file.
All of this being said; it seems appropriate to think twice before anyone assumes that some bad players represent an entire industry. There are more than a million free-standing restaurants in the U.S. and I would dare say that the vast majority are run in a professional manner with people who work hard to respect each other and carry themselves in a way that breeds support and encouragement. Using one broad stroke, as tends to be the case when the wrongdoing of some finally comes to the surface, is not constructive. At a time when it has become increasingly difficult to attract young, eager people to our industry, it is critical that we clean our house where it is needed, but point to all of the good that happens in properly run operations. Here is a checklist for all of us to reference as we assess how we are doing as professionals:
- ARE YOU HIRING PEOPLE FOR THE RIGHT REASONS – Skills, attitude, dependability, and potential regardless of age, gender, size, ethnicity, or race?
- ARE YOU SETTING THE RIGHT TONE IN THE KITCHEN – A tone of support and acceptance; a tone of high expectations and no tolerance for anything but; a tone that demonstrates that everyone has value and respect for them is paramount.
- ARE YOU INVESTING IN APPROPRIATE ORIENTATION OF NEW STAFF – Before any new employee starts they must be indoctrinated, exposed to the standards and policies of the operation, introduced to the team, and acclimated to the position they hold.
- ARE YOU TAKING THE TIME TO ALWAYS TEACH AND TRAIN – Professional organizations invest in constant training and teaching – making sure that employees constantly improve their skills and their understanding of how a professional organization operates.
- DO YOU HAVE ZERO TOLERANCE FOR BULLYING IN THE KITCHEN – The kitchens of old where new employees were hazed and demeaned before they were accepted is no longer appropriate and should not be tolerated.
- DO YOU HAVE ZERO TOLERANCE FOR ANY INTERACTIONS THAT MAKE PEOPLE FEEL THREATENED – Learn to separate what is perceived as harmless fun from actions that make employees feel uncertain, uncomfortable, and threatened.
- DO YOU TALK FREQUENTLY ABOUT WHAT IS APPROPRIATE AND WHAT IS NOT – Sometimes people need to learn what appropriate behavior is. What they may have read in Kitchen Confidential is not what will fly today, nor should it ever appear again.
- DO YOU HANDLE INAPPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR SWIFTLY AND DECISIVELY – The best way to keep the operation on the right track is to deal effectively with any movement away from professional behavior. Sometimes it is as simple as pointing things out and demonstrating why it was wrong and how to correct it and sometimes it may mean disciplinary action.
- DO YOU EXEMPLIFY THE TYPE OF BEHAVIOR THAT YOU KNOW IS CORRECT – As the chef or restaurateur – you set the tone for the operation – make sure your behavior is beyond question.
- DO YOU PROVIDE A FORUM FOR EMPLOYEES TO TALK ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENT THEY WORK IN AND REPORT ANY BEHAVIOR THAT THEY FEEL IS THREATENING – One effective way to eliminate inappropriate behavior is to have a system in place that allows those who are on the receiving end of bad action to find a person who will listen and take action.
- DO YOU MAINTAIN STRENGTH OF CONVICTION, THE HIGHEST POSSIBLE STANDARDS OF EXCELLENCE, STRONG WORK ETHIC, AND THE HIGHEST EXPECTATIONS FROM EVERY EMPLOYEE – To put aside those who might say that this approach is being too soft on employees – there is no reason why you can’t maintain the highest standards of quality and the highest expectations for solid work and create an environment where people feel respected and comfortable.
- DO YOU RECOGNIZE GREAT WORK PUBLICALLY AND DO YOU POINT TO UNSATISFACTORY WORK IN PRIVATE – In a professional kitchen – those who excel should always be celebrated and their behavior known to others. This demonstrates expectations. If they fall down then they should be informed of their mistakes in private – this is a personal issue and there is no benefit to public humiliation.
- IF WORK IS DONE INCORRECTLY – DO YOU DEMONSTRATE HOW EMPLOYEES NEED TO IMPROVE RATHER THAN JUST POINTING TO MISTAKES – Following up with a “teaching moment” is the best way to help staff members understand critique and learn to respect the person who points to areas that need improvement.
If the answer is yes to all of these then you are setting the correct environment for professionalism – if not then you need to seek the right kind of assistance to grow and learn. There are few aspects of running a kitchen or restaurant that are more important than this.
When other operators are found to violate these standards then it is important to admonish their behavior and point out that the majority of restaurateurs and chefs understand and practice supportive behavior and professionalism above all else.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training