culture of fear and bullying in the hospitality industry

April 13, 2023 •

9 min reading

How to stop the culture of fear and bullying in the Hospitality Industry

Written by

Formerly Professor of Food and Beverage and Service Operations Management at EHL, Ian Scarth has a background in strategic development and leadership within the hotel and hospitality sectors. In this article he gives his views on the culture of fear and bullying the hospitality industry has gained a reputation for. He aims to shed light on our sector which is struggling with the contradiction between its core purpose of offering hospitality and the often-highlighted bullying - yet to be eliminated from parts of our industry.

According to the dictionary, 'Bullying' is defined as “Seeking to harm, intimidate, or coerce someone perceived as vulnerable”, while ACAS define it as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.”

The same dictionary suggests Hospitality is “The friendly, graceful, and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.”

Anyone reading these definitions must surely conclude that it's impossible to be hospitable if at the same time one is a bully. Yet the hospitality industry appears to have a bad reputation for bullying and in some cases harassing its employees. How and why have we earnt this reputation and what can we do to change this perception of our industry?


How was a culture of fear and bullying able to flourish?

History of bullying culture in Hospitality

a group of people holding signs in front of a building

Substantial historical evidence suggests that bullying has definately taken place in hotels, restaurant, and catering companies in the past. I remember being initiated into my first job at a fine London restaurant in a way that would not be acceptable today. A soda syphon shower, while seen as a bit of fun at the time, is not an acceptable way of onboarding a new starter. I also recall working through the 1978 strike at Claridge’s, when according to the New York Times “kitchen staff downed tools and walked out in support of a sacked chef. The 19‐year-old trainee, said management had told him he was discharged for not putting enough salt in the ratatouille, drinking a cup of tea at work and arguing with another member of the staff about union activities. He said he had been trying to recruit kitchen workers into the General and Municipal Workers Union”. Acceptable or not?

gordon ramsay with a quote from gordon ramsay

Then there’s the modern-day celebrity chefs, who have built a reputation for using bad language and over aggressive treatment of people working in their kitchens. Some strangely suggesting in their own unstable defence that it’s a long-standing cultural thing, linked to pressure, and that “it’s not going to change”. Many people would question this rationalisation. Hospital operating theatres are high pressure environments that deal in life and death situations, yet they remain calm and respectful of the different skilled team members working to save a life. The words “it’s not going to change” are frightening, because if that’s the case, it shows a lack of compassion and humanity that will continue to drive people away from our industry while portraying a cultural image that repulses rather than attracts people, suggesting such kitchens are short of skilled leadership.

Let’s hope, those chefs with real leadership competencies prevail, demonstrating how it’s very possible to lead a kitchen brigade without having to bully or use a tsunami of swear words to achieve quality. Rather fostering an environment of creativity through care.EHL Degree Programs  Which Master in Hospitality is right for you?  Discover which Master in Hospitality at EHL fits you best. It will only take  the time it would to make yourself a coffee  Start the quiz

What makes Hospitality workers quit?

It is a fact that the UK’s courts spend a lot of time hearing industrial tribunal cases from the hospitality sector that are linked to mistreatment (harassment) of employees. Some of these are won and some are lost, but the most damaging are the goalless draws, settled out of court in an effort to sweep any bullying under the carpet, out of the gaze of customers, public and the press.

Then there’s employee word-of-mouth which travels through the recruitment market like a wildfire on steroids, via sites like Glassdoor and in the press. Research in the USA by Schedulehead suggests that ex-hospitality workers leave the industry for eight main reasons:

  1. Bad bosses
  2. A bad match
  3. Low pay
  4. Unclear and unreasonable expectations
  5. Toxic work environments
  6. Lack of predictability with scheduling
  7. Not enough opportunities for growth
  8. No recognition.

A toxic work culture

The worst companies to work for

For point 5, a “Toxic Work Culture”, they state the following: “As with a bad boss, a Toxic Work Culture will chew-up and spit out good employees, leaving only those willing to put up with (or contributing to) the toxicity. Hospitality is often a high-pressure work environment, leaving even the best employees frazzled some days. Most employees can weather the stress. It’s an unhealthy work environment that will drive them to find employment elsewhere. Sexual harassment, bullying, and unwarranted favouritism can wreak havoc in the workplace. Sadly, 63% of Hospitality workers have experienced an incident of sexual or other harassment while on the job. Meaning it's important to be intentional about the type of environment you want to foster within your business. A healthy working environment is not built accidentally. It requires proactive, ongoing efforts from leadership.

To develop a positive working environment, it's important to establish clear policies for escalating bad behaviour from co-worker’s, management, or customers. Proactively look for feedback from your current employees and model healthy workplace behaviours from management downward. Beyond the obvious, employees appreciate a workplace with transparent communication, approachable management, and clear direction”.

The difference between bullying and harassment

Liz Rosling for SME Loans writes “Whilst bullying isn’t classed as illegal under the Equality Act 2010, harassment is. The problem is that there are often a number of overlaps between harassment and bullying – where harassment is more direct, bullying is often less obvious, more subtle and psychological. The ACAS helpline receives over 20,000 calls annually. These calls reveal that bullying manifests in a wide variety of ways, having serious impacts on individual wellbeing, business performance and the UK economy as a whole.

After surveying 2,000 UK based employees on their experiences at work to date, our findings revealed that 23% of the British workforce has been bullied at work, and that almost 1 in 4. 25% have been made to feel left out in the workplace”. The law states that harassment has taken place when unwanted behaviour has been used in relation to one of the following: age, sex, gender, marriage and civil partnerships, pregnancy/maternity, disability, race, religion, and sexual orientation.

How should hospitality bosses motivate employees?

Modern leadership teachings suggest trust, respect, honesty, kindness, empathy, inclusion and humanity should be the catalysts used to drive performance. These elements, if properly defined and integrated into company culture, will greatly reduce any risk of harassment taking place. Gone are the days when aggressive micromanagement and bullying can achieve the results we desire. They will only push up already disturbing turnover rates We must have clear zero-tolerance approaches to these negative practices.

There is no doubt many hospitality companies have recognised this challenge and are doing great work to change past negative practices and improve our industry’s image. They clearly know that bullying and harassment are wrong and are not characteristics they want to be associated with. Our industry has enough to deal with, it certainly doesn’t need a self-inflicted harmful reputation.

Over recent years, hotel and restaurant companies have started to win high-profile awards for being great employers, yet these companies still struggle to recruit the volume or stature of people they need. Their commitment and effort is being overshadowed by the perception of the wider industry. While the good guys may attract team members from other, less people-focused hospitality companies, they can do little to win staff away from (or leaving to join) other industries that are seen as being more people focused.


How can we put an end to workplace bullying in Hospitality?

How does our fragmented industry pull together to tackle this problem, so the sector is perceived as a long-term, safe career bet in the eyes of future school leavers, parents, and career advisors? That’s a bigger challenge than I have the ability or foresight to address in this article. However, I do want to ask all hospitality companies to look at their practices and processes around bullying and set policies to ensure these practices are eliminated for good, replacing them where needed with more modern leadership approaches built around empathy, kindness, and recognition.

Enhancing the appeal of the hospitality sector to potential employees is a major challenge. It will require continued effort from both SMEs and multinationals, the length and breadth of the country (and beyond). Today’s benchmark employers and industry bodies need to challenge the mindset of those that still believe the stick, is better than the carrot. Such people or organizations belong to a bygone era, in which the bully believed he or she was all things to all people, often afraid to admit failure or weakness, refusing to give away any power or authority. In other word’s they ruled through fear.

These days, we know that failure and the sharing of power and knowledge are an essential part of the learning/improvement process. We also know that a no-fear culture is critical to enhance openness, drive innovation and cultivate necessary change, which will in turn keep organisations competitive. Leaders of today’s organisations must focus on creating more leaders, rather than keeping their followers under tight control.

As recently as last year I witnessed a Senior Manager telling a subordinate, “I command you,” when emphasising an instruction the junior staff member felt was unreasonable. Clearly, if military style terms are being used to bully people into doing things they are not comfortable with, the old ways have not disappeared completely.


16 anti-bullying strategies

Deploy these strategies in your business to stamp out bullying

  1. Outlaw micromanagement in your organisation, in favour of a trust culture.
  2. Introduce an anti-bullying charter / campaign.
  3. Strive for an open, no-blame culture and accept that mistakes will happen, we are all human.
  4. Set everyone a higher purpose and give team members the tools to achieve them. Ensure that the purpose speaks clearly about the way people should be treated.
  5. Build a no-fear culture that allows for and encourages open discussion.
  6. Provide specific pre-and-post promotion training, to support team members that have just been given their first job managing others (i.e. a first time managers course).
  7. Develop an on-line learning library of readily available articles so all team members have access to a file on bullying and motivational techniques.
  8. State clearly in mission and vision documents, that bullying sits outside the company culture and will not be tolerated, operate to a zero-tolerance level.
  9. Provide a responsive and effective whistle-blower service.
  10. Deliver training to management on how to avoid bullying and harassment and lead through empathy and trust.
  11. Champion Integration and diversity.
  12. Make your mental first aid programme proactive rather than reactive. Collect data on the main causes of mental illness in your workplace and have plans and targets to reduce them. Just like you would do with slips and falls and other physical workplace injuries by using tools like safety walks and near miss systems.
  13. Ensure managers don’t feel threatened, as people under threat tend to bully more.
  14. Create recognition and awards for kindness.
  15. Words can be both uplifting or destructive depending on how they are selected and used, teach managers how to use words that motivate, encourage, and thank people, whilst showing them how to avoid words that hurt, frighten, and demotivate their teams.
  16. Encourage a mentoring program for new managers and leaders, so no one takes control of a team without having an experienced mentor to bounce ideas off and seek advice from.

In short, encourage and build a culture based on powerful emotional intelligence. We must always remember that it’s the bully who is actually the sick person, not the vulnerable person being bullied, and that true hospitality cannot be delivered by an unwell person overseeing a culture of fear. You need to be both a carer and a server to be hospitable and a true leader. The offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting bully has no place in an industry whose entire reason for being is to be friendly, graceful, and generous to people.

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