Witnessing sexual harrasment at a restaurant
March 7, 2017 3:33 AM   Subscribe

My friend and I have witnessed a pattern of sexual harassment at a local restaurant and want to know what we can do.

My friend and I have become regulars at a restaurant in town. Over a couple weeks of going there, we have noticed a disturbing pattern. The restaurant staff is comprised almost entirely of young (20-26ish) men who are all non-white (Asian and Latino). The restaurant owner is a white man who appears to be in his mid-forties. Every time we have been there, we've witnessed the owner engage in behavior that, by any standard, comprises sexual harassment. This includes: standing very close to staff when talking to them, whispering into their ears, touching them on their legs and butts, and, most recently, kissing several of them on the forehead or cheek. This is all done pretty openly, almost in a "haha, we're all just one big happy family" kind of way. But the staff looks really uncomfortable. They stiffen, endure the physical contact, and then resume their work duties as if nothing has happened.
My friend and I are guessing (presuming) that most of the staff is probably afraid of losing their jobs if they confronted or complained about this behavior. On an even more serious level, we are worried that it could be bigger than that (trafficking, or that there may be staff members with tenuous immigration status who are afraid of larger consequences if they go to authorities with a complaint). Since this guy is the owner of the restaurant, there's no one "above him" who could field a complaint.
What can we, as restaurant-goers, do? Options we've considered so far:
1. Talk to one of the staff members with whom we are friendly to get more info from him about whether our observations are accurate and whether he and/or other staff members are feeling uncomfortable
2. Reach out to a lawyer and try to see what would be needed to bring a case against this guy
3. Post an anonymous yelp review calling out the behavior in an attempt to publicly shame the owner into stopping and/or maybe get some media attention

My friend and I feel pretty clueless and welcome advice for how to best move forward while centering the needs/desires of the staff and also protecting their safety. Thanks in advance!
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

I have no legal knowledge or experience.
This is distressing. I worry though that some of the workers may feel it's less distressing, or less dangerous, than whatever they've left in their home country.
And this is a really scary time for undocumented workers.
Therefore, I would perhaps speak to the worker you're friendly with, but then I would also make sure to have the enthusiastic consent of every single worker there before considering bringing this to a lawyer or any part of the law, for fear that well meaning legal attention, as things developed, could wind up hurting them as potential illegal immigrants.
posted by flourpot at 3:56 AM on March 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

If you're asking my opinion, it indeeds sounds unfortunate, but it's none of my business. What if I've/you've completely misread the situation. #1 is about the extent of what's appropriate, IMO.

Certainly don't post reference to this anonymously on Yelp. Don't.
posted by humboldt32 at 4:33 AM on March 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Make a report to the department of labor. Have your friend do the same, separately. That's why the department of labor exists.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 5:27 AM on March 7, 2017 [8 favorites]

What's wrong with just walking up to the owner and saying "Hey pal, what's up? We love this place but we're a little curious about how you seem to interact with the waiters. It seems weird to us." Hear what he has to say. Either he has an explanation, or he stammers and stutters. At the very least, you've let him know that as a paying customer, it bothers you.

I don't get all the secret whispers and concoctions of grand conspiracies. Just be direct but non-accusatory. The worst thing that could happen from asking the owner of the restaurant about his hiring policy is... I don't know, maybe it's slightly awkward and then you choose not to go back there? Whatever that thing is, it's much less severe than some of the bad things that could result from your other choices.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 5:47 AM on March 7, 2017 [5 favorites]

I presume your top priority is the well-being of the restaurant staff. If this is the case, do NOT talk to the owner. Do NOT publicize the situation. And above all, do NOT contact any legal authorities, including the DoL. The odds are very high that some of the employees are immigrants who are working without authorization; this is just a fact of the restaurant industry. Especially in these scary times, you don't want to do anything that could jeopardize their ability to remain under the radar. If you insist on getting involved, talk to the employee with whom you're friendly, but then-- and I can't stress this strongly enough-- take whatever he says at face value. If he says nothing is going on, then nothing is going on, and you should drop it. If you can't do this, you need to stop going to this restaurant.
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:54 AM on March 7, 2017 [30 favorites]

Very very often I see stickers and cards with the phone numbers of agencies that protect women in the women's bathrooms. Perhaps contact a regional group such as a sexual-violence prevention agency or a women's resource organization and see if you can pick up some such stickers or postcards or flyers to leave around. You could also leave them in your checkbook when you pay, though that's likelier to be spotted more clearly.
posted by Miko at 6:00 AM on March 7, 2017 [7 favorites]

Talking to the employee you're friendly with is your best bet.

Only post a Yelp review if you already have some Yelp reviews, not if you don't normally post reviews, because if you post an anonymous review it could look like it came from the employees, plus it's unlikely to hold much weight with anyone. I think a good Yelp review would be something like "Great food and service but there's a weird vibe between the owner and the waiters that creeps me out that makes me not want to go there anymore" (admittedly could make you sound gay-panicky, but if the owner really is being a creeper it at least lets him know that his customers are noticing and not liking it, and other patrons of the restaurant may be more likely to notice it if someone else points it out first).
posted by mskyle at 6:03 AM on March 7, 2017

There are local and/or federal agencies that are supposed to rescue victims of human trafficking, give them sanctuary and help them get green cards + persecute the traffickers. We don't know if this situation is that. If the entire restaurant was staffed by victims, it would be a pretty elaborate and established criminal operation.

You might try to casually find out where one or two of the waiters are from. Do they live together? After closing time, are they transported together somewhere else? Or do they leave separately and go to individual homes?

If they leave separately, they may just be undocumented. The job may be voluntary, even if the harrassment is not.

You are free to keep your eyes open, ask a few questions. Anything eles, like calling agencies and asking questions about policies or otherwise indicating publicly your suspicions, well, think really really hard about that.
posted by jbenben at 6:47 AM on March 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

My wife is a lawyer whose practice consists entirely of plaintiff's employment law, including lots of sexual harassment cases. We can't conceive of a way you as a customer can initiate legal action. You could follow up on your conversation with a staff member by referring them to an employment attorney, but these cases are very rarely done on a contingency basis in most areas and I'm doubtful they could afford to pursue it. This is the unfortunate reality for many people on the margins and it's even worse for those with immigration issues.
posted by Lame_username at 7:07 AM on March 7, 2017 [11 favorites]

Given the amount of (understandable) push-back in this thread to do anything that puts the staff at risk, I'm wondering if there's way to address the owner on a non-threatening white person to white person level that focuses more on appearances.

This could be a terrible idea (and I'm sure people will let me know if it is), but would it make sense to approach it as "he's sending mixed messages?" Like you have a friend who thought he was cute, but seeing how he interacts with the staff, you're not sure if he's single or dating someone right now?
posted by redsparkler at 8:04 AM on March 7, 2017

There was a similar situation in this area; it got publicized, and the restaurant wound up getting shut down and a bunch of people lost their jobs. I agree that you should approach this in the most low-key manner you can manage.
posted by languagehat at 8:28 AM on March 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

There's a lot of assuming going on.. so unless you are a professional at 'reading people', and, well, even then I'd offer caution.. you should be wary before you levy your perceptions on someone.

You may be right.. but, well, then you may not be. You have no knowledge of context, who anyone is, or if you are just projecting onto people that they are 'stiffening' up or are uncomfortable. At some point, many observations become biased-influence self-enforcing because now you are *looking* for it.. like seeing 5's in everything.

Maybe ask a staff member, but... I'd first re-calibrate your senses and check again.
posted by rich at 8:30 AM on March 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

>What's wrong with just walking up to the owner and saying "Hey pal, what's up?<>

Because that owner can take it out on his employees thinking someone put a patron up to it, and there may be more problems going on here than just harrassment, and if he is openly abusive in front of customers, that is a red flag that he doesn't see anything wrong.

If you can document his behaviour, say using your smartphone, and talk quietly to the workers. Take notes and then if you have some idea of what is happening, take it to the DoL. A trail helps.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 9:39 AM on March 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

My only advice here is to tread with caution around your assumptions.

I am in a professional field, and I once had a coworker file a sexual harassment complaint against one of my clients on my behalf, without my knowledge, based on observing a few of our interactions. It was totally uncalled for (I did not feel harassed, I was not being harassed, etc.) and it had wide-ranging implications for myself, my client, and our companies' professional relationship.
posted by tryniti at 1:33 PM on March 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

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