Head Chef Cooks Up Harassment!

Question:

I Am a 23 year-old female working as a pastry chef at a very upscale restaurant. This is my first job out of school. The kitchen is very small. I work with four men 12-14 hrs a day. The head chef is abusive and intimidating, and every conversation is of an extremely graphic sexual nature. I have told him that this makes me very uncomfortable. He laughed and said this type of talk shouldn’t offend me of all people. His assumption was that sleep around a lot. I find out later that one of the other men I work with has told everyone that he and I had a sexual relationship. I have tried to defend myself and dispel this lie as I am in a serious relationship, but nobody believes me. I honestly believe that my boss has a deep hatred for women. He is a 30 yr-old man who slept with a teenage busser and now all he does is talk about how immoral she is. I really can’t leave this job, as I will never find one comparable in the state. I know this man is mentally unstable and an alcoholic. The owner would do nothing if I went to him, he is an older man who is very non-confrontational and will turn a blind eye to any problems. I am sick before work and usually leave in tears. I can’t take it anymore.

Follow-up information:

I live in a small community of about 600. The staff in the winter is about 12. The kitchen staff with which I work consists of four men and myself. There is a woman with whom I have shared my issues and she agrees with me that these men are horrible and abusive. She, however, only deals with them a few hours a week during service hours. During service, they usually clean up their act. Nobody actually witnesses the abuse and harassment, as it is only myself and the four of them for the first 10 hrs of the day. I have considered recording them, but I was informed this was illegal.

I don’t want to leave my job, as I will never find a better career opportunity in the state. I would rather take the abuse than leave my job, but I have to believe there is a better way.

Signed,

Pastry Chef


Answer:

Dear Pastry Chef:

Your work situation sounds very stressful and upsetting. It also sounds as though it may be harassing and illegal. Whether or not you have grounds for using federal law to make the situation better is something about which you should consult the EEOC or an attorney. Most attorneys who specialize in harassment situations will provide a free consultation. At least that would give you a basis for knowing where you stand if you must take legal action to stop the inappropriate behavior and protect your job.

As far as tape recording conversations go, you can record conversations in which you are participating or in which you are included because of your lawful presence. You would not be doing anything illegal to record harassing conversations. It is only illegal to record conversations in which you are not a participant. It would be illegal to tap a phone line or hide a tape recorder in the office of your boss to record conversations when you are not around. It would not be illegal to have a tape recorder in your pocket and record general kitchen conversation when you are present. Most of those tapes are not easy to understand anyway, but might be useful. If someone finds out you are recording him or her and says it is illegal, remind him or her that it is a federal law violation to have a workplace that is permeated with sexual conversation and his or her attorney can get in touch with your attorney about it.

The taping situation and others are why you should contact a lawyer. There is no point in taping anything anyway, if you don’t intend to do something with it immediately. You should also be writing verbatim dialogues of everything that is said to you or about you that is graphically sexual, inappropriate or biased. Just saying a conversation is crude or sexual, doesn’t convey the information fully. You need to be able to tell what day and time something was said, what was said and who witnessed it.

Regarding this entire situation, it may be useful for you as you start considering individual choices and options. I have been told that the work environment of restaurant kitchens is often very rough, rude, insensitive, ego-oriented and sometimes quite crude. You may find this career will be a difficult one for you, as it is for many women. On the other hand, there are restaurant kitchens where the chefs do not act in the way you describe and many women are successful as chefs. You may want to contact associations related to the restaurant industry to see if they have advice. If you know of a female chef, contact her and ask for her guidance. You went to a culinary school, I presume. Contact a teacher or mentor you respected there and ask them what they suggest. You are not without options.

One option you have is to leave and find a much more congenial place. There surely is more than one restaurant in your state that needs a pastry chef! You say you would rather take the abuse than find another job. That is your choice then. If that is the case and you decide to stay, you may need to learn to live with the rude and crude remarks; many women do, just as many men learn to adjust to a workplace they don’t care for very much. I’m not saying you SHOULD have to…just saying that if you don’t choose to leave or take legal action, your best option is to learn to deal with it, so you can gain the knowledge and skills you need to go to a much better establishment.

You have not indicated you are physically threatened. If the worst that happens is that the language and remarks are crude, perhaps you can shut them out and realize it is mostly macho bravado and not intended to hurt you personally. Even if remarks are made about you, it will soon become an old joke. When it is obvious that you have another relationship and are not involved with anyone at work, no one will believe the stories. After awhile the men will get tired of trying to shock you. If you are a good worker and an asset to the kitchen, no one will want to lose you as an employee and that alone may help over time.

Do you intend to work there forever? If you are building your career, perhaps you can make a mental commitment to grit your teeth and survive this unpleasant situation until you can move on to something better. You say you have a relationship; you likely have friends and family who can empathize with you. Don’t obsess about this; just treat is as you would if you were in any other job where there were inappropriate actions that you could not control. Create a life away from work that provides you with fulfillment and nurturing. View work as a way to gain experience and to demonstrate your knowledge and skills, but keep it at arm’s length emotionally.

Another option you have if you stay is to do something substantial to stop the behavior. You say you can’t talk to the owner, but it might very well help to do so. The best time would be if he has heard something said, so you could refer to it. You have tried expressing your discomfort to the chef and it has had no impact. If your immediate boss is an alcoholic and has had issues with women, it’s not surprising that talking to him didn’t help.

The owner is responsible for his business and the way employees are treated. If you talk to him, approach it truthfully as a female employee who is depending upon him to help you. Ask him if he would want his wife or daughter subjected to that kind of behavior. Tell him you are not asking that everyone suddenly turn into saints, just that they do not talk about you personally and direct remarks at you. Tell him that you have talked to the chef about it but nothing changed and in fact, it became worse.

You might want to consider figuring out which of the male employees would support you, then go to them and tell them how you have been feeling. Tell them you are a strong person and will not quit just because of lies, but that if they care at all about the employees supporting each other, you would appreciate their support in this.

If you are going to see an attorney wait until after that interview to do anything, so you can be sure you are doing the right thing for the situation.

I hope these thoughts will help you develop a plan of action. You can choose to do nothing and hope it improves; and it may. You can leave and let the owner know why he is losing a good employee. (I would think he would want to keep you and that is good leverage.) You can stay and try some direct approaches to making things better. You can talk to an attorney about it. You can seek counsel from those who are familiar with a setting such as yours. As I said, you are not without options; you just need to decide how bad it is at work is and what you are willing to do to make it better.

Best wishes as you deal with this challenge. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOs.

Tina Lewis Rowe