What Can I Do About Remarks About Women Servers By Restaurant Co-Worker?

A Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about how to deal with a rude co-worker who makes negative remarks about women.

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Question:
I am a 47 year old female server with 30 years of experience, employed for three years at a locally-owned restaurant. I am the only female server. There are two 22 or 23 year old young men who started as busboys at age 16 and have been serving during college breaks for three years, working there six-seven years, on and off. One has joined a union and had been just filling in when needed. The other flunked out of college. They both are now working full time at the restaurant. One of them constantly makes derogatory comments, such as telling the boss him and the other one have been here for longer and should get more tables, they are better servers than me so I should get less tables, comments like “This restaurant needs to go back to male servers only. We don’t get periods.”

Tonight after my day off I asked my coworker how last night was, trying to be conversational. He answered “No Pussy, No Problem.” I said that was completely inappropriate and demanded an apology. He rolled his eyes at me and said it is a common phrase and “this is why you cause problems.” (Meaning women). The other server does not say offensive things but stands by his buddy’s side. Silent treatment and not team playing and such. What is my recourse?

Response:
We are not attorneys and do not have in-depth knowledge of employment law but perhaps we can share some thoughts that will help you decide how best to handle your situation. You asked what recourse you have when dealing with a rude, crude and obnoxious young male co-worker—and the other male employee who supports him. It sounds as though the two young guys enjoy ganging up on you–and view you as getting in the way of their boy’s club at work. They want only male servers and aren’t mature enough to learn to work with female employees–and it doesn’t sound as though it will get better on its own, since it’s been going on for several years. Essentially they have grown up working in that restaurant and have been allowed to become offensive employees. They must be able to treat patrons much differently or they would be complained about! So…it’s possible for them to be pleasant, they just don’t want to be, when it comes to women and to you.

One recourse might be reporting the ongoing harassing behavior to a local EEOC office and asking them for assistance. However, if your employer employs less than 15 people, EEOC regulations related to discrimination and harassment do not apply. If 15 or more employees work for your employer in one or more restaurants, your employer should be well aware of his obligation to stop harassing or sexist behavior. In such cases a crucial issue is whether or not the employer had evidence of harassing behavior and whether or not anything was done to stop it.

Another recourse, and probably the one that will be most effective, is to go to the person who has the authority to do something–the owner of the restaurant–and ask him to stop the co-worker from being offensive in his interactions with you and about you. Given the time you have worked there and the experience you have had in the service industry, it seems to me your employer would want to keep you as a satisfied employee and would not want you to be treated so rudely, for any reason. It’s hard enough to do a great job in a demanding environment such as a restaurant, without having the added distraction of back-stabbing, mean-spirited comments and who knows what else. If the coworker is as nasty as he sounds, there is no telling what else he might do or say to create problems for you!

You mention that the problematic coworker talks badly about you to the owner, but you didn’t say how the owner responds to him. Does he laugh, ignore the remarks, mildly tell the employee to stop it, or sharply rebuke him? If the owner doesn’t care how the employee talks—or doesn’t care enough to tell the employee to do his job and stop making remarks about women in general and you specifically, it may be that your only recourse is to find a better place to work—and let the owner realize he lost a great employee. However, your employer may only need to hear about something as grossly inappropriate as, “no p***y, no problem”, to make him take action. (The coworker who said that must really be a jerk!)

The working relationship you have with your employer will make a difference in how you approach him. If you think you know him well enough to be open about how you feel, tell him exactly what was said, how it made you feel, especially added to all the other things the other server has said, and that you would like your boss’s assistance to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Point out that whatever the attitude of the other employees about working with you or women in general, they should not say demeaning things. You may have to push it a bit to get him to take you seriously. For example, you may have to say something like, “Bill, do you see how really awful it is for Kevin to talk to me like that? I want to come to work feeling good and having a smile on my face, but it’s hard to do it when he makes his hatred of women–and of me–so obvious. I can’t make him stop it, only you can, so will you please help me with this???”

If your manager knows all about the things the employee has said and done—and knows you have felt hurt and offended by it—but hasn’t done anything serious to stop it, you will need to decide how much more you are willing to tolerate. Even though it would bother you to make the coworkers happy to have the place to themselves, your employer might finally realize how destructive their behavior has been—and you would be in a workplace where you are treated with respect.

1. If you continue to work there—with or without a change in behavior by the coworker—be an example of how an emotionally mature person behaves in conflict situations:Insulate yourself mentally and emotionally from the bad behavior of others by making other things more important to you than their mosquito-like buzzing: Develop your life away from work, so you can come to work refreshed and ready; be the best you can be at your job and set goals for positive interactions with patrons. (X number of smiles back to you, X times you say thank you and get a positive reaction in return, X times you can have a positive interaction with kitchen staff, etc.); set personal goals for how you will make the best use of your salary, so you can more easily keep the positive end result in mind.

2. Limit your conversation with the coworker to standard social interactions of hello and goodbye and not much more, unless he makes civil conversation first. You do not need to have conversations with him and it sounds as though he will use almost anything as a way to make a snide remark. Don’t give him the chance. You can be civil and courteous without engaging with him about anything except required work-related matters.

3. Do not talk negatively about the problem co-worker or other employees to anyone at work, except your employer. You can bet any negative comment you make gets back to your co-worker, with a spin on it.

4. If you talk to your employer about the matter, don’t just vent—have examples and ask for action.

5. Self-assess honestly, to make sure you are not adding to the conflict out of defensiveness or frustration. If your manager thinks both of you are in the wrong, he will have found his excuse for not intervening. Instead, you want him to see the situation as one-sided, with you making a strong effort to be a trouble-free employee. If that hasn’t always been the case, start now to build that image with him, so you can be more likely to get his full support.

I hope these thoughts have given you a few ideas you can adapt to your situation. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what you are able to do and how things work out.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors