Respecting Customer Service Employees during the Holidays and Beyond

Dark-haired male cashier of a grocery store smiling at blonde female customer as she's paying via credit card.

The holiday season is one of—if not, the most—busiest times of the year for people in the service industry whether they are working in restaurants, shops or hotels. Unfortunately, people in the service industry face an outsized proportion of sexual harassment and misconduct in normal times, so it would not be a stretch to say that disrespectful behavior from customers may be even worse this time of year. In the holiday spirit of thinking about others, RALIANCE wanted to take a moment and reflect on the challenges of those in the service industry as we all embark on our gift-buying sprees.

Service workers face so much sexual harassment, that they often can’t recognize when it happens says a forthcoming report from the Cornell University School of Industrial Relations. A part of the reason that sexual misconduct may become normalized beyond recognition is the industry’s inherent reliance on measurements of accomplishment such as reviews, commission or tips. In a 2018 report, the nonprofit advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Center found that respondents indicated dependence on tips closely aligned with levels of sexual harassment.

“The ‘customer is always right’ mentality and entitlement can feed into sexual misconduct,” says Tori VandeLinde, Project Manager at RALIANCE, “I have a lot of examples from my time as a barista. I was fortunate enough at one location to have a boss who supported me and all of us when we experienced rude customers or harassing customers. This should be the standard across every industry.”

Unfortunately, when many workers experience and identify sexual harassment, they feel like they either don’t know who to tell about it or can’t tell anyone about it at all, says Nadia Hewka, cofounder and advisory board member of the Coalition for Restaurant Safety and Health.

Phoebe Strom, a PhD candidate at Cornell University School of Industrial Relations and an author of the study told Quartz that workers who become effectively desensitized to harassment in the service industry unwittingly enable and perpetuate the behaviors. Because they can’t identify it or they don’t feel they can report it, people receive no consequences and continue the behavior.

Strom extrapolated that as these service workers who become desensitized to harassment move up in the ranks or into other industries where they may also enable or perpetuate those behaviors. “What effect does this have across the entire employment landscape in this country?” she asks.

In addition to being extra patient to service workers this December, all employers may take this time of year to consider the usefulness of implementing a harassment taxonomy. In a recent blog, we discussed the value of sexual misconduct taxonomies in the workplace; having clear classifications of what constitutes as harassment as well as delineating the reporting structure can help prevent predatory behavior.

RALIANCE is a trusted adviser for organizations committed to building cultures that are safe, equitable, and respectful. RALIANCE offers unparalleled expertise in serving survivors of sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse which drives our mission to help organizations across sectors create inclusive environments for all. For more information, please visit


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