Sexual Harassment: A Hospitality Problem

After Weinstein and Spacey, could the hotel and hospitality industry benefit from looking in the mirror?

A slew of Hollywood names, political figures and television personalities both in the UK and across the pond were rumbled for sexual misconduct in the last part of 2017. But evidence suggests those in the hospitality industry experienced more sexual harassment than any other sector. SHEKINA TUAHENE looks at the issue more closely

Have you ever been sexually assaulted or felt uncomfortable with a colleague’s behaviour at work? It’s not just Hollywood and the halls of government where this takes place: as many will know, in parts of the hospitality industry, it is unfortunately a very real part of the job for some. It may have taken years, even decades for those affected in the entertainment industry to share their stories, but arguably showbiz has an advantage that blue-collar jobs may not – a media mouthpiece keen to hear and publicise their accounts.

It goes without saying that the hospitality and hotel industry is no stranger to sexual harassment concerns. A study conducted in 1998 – or a full 20 years before the wider international furore began to find its feet – ‘Sexual Harassment Issues in the Hospitality Industry’ report by David Gilbert, Yvonne Guerrier and Jonathan Guy found that “more men and women experience sexual harassment in the hotel industry than do individuals in society-at-large”. If you want something more recent, a survey by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in 2016 found that 67% of women in the hospitality and leisure industry reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment compared to a wider cross-sector workplace average of 52%.

“More men and women experience sexual harassment in the hotel industry than do individuals in society-at-large”.

Trade Union Congress (2016)


In the 1998 report, the authors suggest that the hospitality industry’s particular predilection to the problem may be partially explained by the fact that many start in the industry at a young age and tend to have informal forms of education. As a consequence, many do not feel socially confident to raise an issue or indeed know which channels to target for professional recourse – especially if the perpetrator is significantly older or has a superior rank in the organisation.

There can be no integrity in a discussion about sexual misconduct, however, if it concludes or intimates that the onus is on victims to seek redress or even safety from their employer. The role of those actually committing sexually inappropriate acts is where the Weinstein-and-beyond narrative has rightfully directed debate. The 2016 TUC study found that women working in male-dominated industries were – unsurprisingly perhaps – more likely to be subjected to sexual harassment. But it’s not just the TUC – recent figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) and The Change Group found that despite female workers making up 54% of the hospitality workforce, 58% of senior roles were held by men. The point here is not to tangentially enter a debate about the gender pay gap, it is that if we accept that sexual misconduct is committed mostly by men in senior positions – both in the hospitality industry and in wider society – then women in those lower positions, and in greater numbers, are statistically more vulnerable to a certain type of male boss or indeed hotel guest who might choose to engage in sexual harassment. Peter de la Perelle, managing director of Tower Hotel Management which operates Holiday Inn and Hilton Hotels, says that the “inclusive environment” in his properties means there aren’t the different managerial levels found in larger operations, which he believes is “conducive to a more open and successful working environment”. If power is what moves certain individuals to sexual misconduct, then it follows that a flatter chain of command would yield different results.

The background of workers is a factor, too. With 1.5 million of the British hospitality sector’s workforce consisting of non-UK nationals, a major concern for a responsible employer should be that members of staff may feel too isolated to speak up about incidences of sexual harassment or feel that their voice won’t be heard – especially when faced with a guest or more superior member of staff who may have a perceived higher social standing, level of income, greater industry experience or command of the English language than they do.

However, while some survey work may conclude the levels of sexual harassment in the hospitality industry outweigh the national average, Peter Ducker, chief executive of the Institute of Hospitality, suggests it may not be that “hospitality practitioners have a greater propensity towards such behaviour”, but rather, a game of numbers, as the industry employs so many people and tends to have a high turnover, with a large number of people working in the sector at some point in their lives.


The last decade has seen a technology-driven evolution of the workforce from fixed hours contractual agreements with employee protections, to growing numbers of people employed in zero-hours, flexible, ‘gig economy’ jobs where the relationship with one’s employer is less formal. In this environment, a catch-22 situation arises in which many people would worry they risk losing their job by creating a hostile environment at work, or may keep quiet hoping luck is on their side and that they don’t come across the perpetrator on their next shift. For some, putting up with such behaviour a few times a week is greatly outweighed by the loss of income if that same individual quits or loses their job as a result of any incident.

It’s borne out by research: a recent ComRes survey for BBC News found that flexible workers were more likely to have experienced unwanted harassing behaviour, and the TUC’s report reiterates that those who are in “casualised work and on short, fixed-term contracts are less likely to be unionised and are therefore less able to call on the support of a union rep in challenging sexual harassment in the workplace and less able to take a claim to employment tribunal without the financial support of a union”. Ducker says that those in senior positions should aim to do more about it. “Responsible managers,” he says, “must make sure that the organisations’ protection policies are clear, easily understood and equally available to all employees whatever their contract terms may be.”

For some, putting up with such behaviour a few times a week is greatly outweighed by the loss of income if that same individual quits or loses their job as a result of any incident.

In the ‘Sexual Harassment Issues in the Hospitality Industry’ report, mention is made of the “feminisation” attitude with regard to “what is expected of service employees”: the hotel industry can encourage a close and sometimes intimate relationship with customers and fellow employees. “In many customer contact roles in the service sector,” it says, “‘sexiness’ is a part of the role itself, the ‘job flirt’ is encouraged as a part of the service style…and there may be a thin line between ‘selling the service’ and ‘selling sexuality’.” It continues: “In many service roles staff are encouraged to use their sexuality to please customers and sell the product – although most employers would not openly admit this.”

‘sexiness’ is a part of the role itself, the ‘job flirt’ is encouraged as a part of the service style

Sexual Harassment Issues in the Hospitality Industry report (1998)

Hotel staff are encouraged to learn visitors names, greet them with a smile, be personable and friendly, and in places which boast more exceptional service – learn their behaviours, likes and dislikes. This workplace persona that many hospitality staff adopt boils down to a desire to deliver the best customer service, uphold the company reputation and on a more personal level, earn more tips – which can be essential wage booster in an industry where hours can be unpredictable and pay can be low. While the majority of guests may recognise this behaviour as someone simply doing their job really well, to others, it may breed a sense of familiarity and a blurring of the lines between what is a professional relationship and what is a personal one.

Perhaps the most obvious response to any misconduct from a hotel or restaurant guest would be simply to ban the person from the establishment, rather than going through a time-consuming and possibly costly legal or human resources route. But this is key: it is not just that employees will want to avoid ‘causing a fuss’ amongst their colleagues, it’s that they may also choose not to speak up in their efforts to retain a paying customer or large tips, or even positive online reviews, even in the face of inappropriate behaviour.

A survey into Chicago hotels conducted by Unite Here Local 1, called ‘Hands Off Pants On: Sexual Harassment in Chicago’s Hospitality Industry’, found 49% of housekeepers had seen guests expose themselves, flash or open the door while still naked. In a Huffington Post report, a minibar attendant in a Chicago hotel said she walked in on a guest masturbating in his room despite being welcomed in after knocking on the door. She told the Huffington Post that she felt it had been his intention to make sure she witnessed his behaviour. Of the housekeepers who reported similar experiences, only one in three reported it to a manager. The same study of 500 women who worked in hospitality also found that 58% of hotel workers had been overtly sexually harassed by a guest.

49% of housekeepers had seen guests expose themselves, flash or open the door while still naked.

Hands Off Pants On: Sexual Harassment in Chicago’s Hospitality Industry (2017)

Unite Here subsequently campaigned for hotel housekeepers to be issued with handheld, wireless panic alarm buttons, lobbying city councils to pass legislation to enable all workers in America to have them. While there are no explicit plans to introduce a similar measure to the UK, some in the industry predict it may lead to more problems and misuse. Peter de la Perelle, managing director of Tower Hotel Management says: “I can see that being [used in] a situation where you get a couple staying and having [an argument], and someone then pushing the button which has nothing to do with sexual harassment.”

The problem of identifying what constitutes sexual harassment is complicated because of how Peter de la Perelle’s analysis might play in reverse: when people fail to recognise sexual harassment in the first place. Certainly in recent media coverage there seems to be disagreement as to the definition. The ‘Sexual Harassment Issues in the Hospitality Industry’ report states: “By its nature, the service production process is inextricably linked to the close involvement of the customer, and behavioural norms are often set around satisfying a customer’s expectations; preferably exceeding those expectations.” This may lead workers to feel coerced into keeping quiet to keep the customer happy and follow the commonly said service role ethos; “the customer is always right”. TUC’s online survey found that respondents “expressed the fear that they would be seen as humourless and unable to ‘take a joke’ if they challenged or reported the behaviour”.

The Gilbert, Guerrier and Guy report says: “According to a survey in 1990…of British management’s attitudes to sexual harassment in the workplace, only 64.8% of respondents regarded sexual harassment as a serious management issue.” The report’s own findings showed that almost one in five people treats sexual harassment as a minor issue but the majority (75%) of the hospitality industry respondents treat such a situation as of ‘critical importance’.

The disparity in the opinion of the seriousness of different forms of sexual harassment goes right across the board as seen in the report’s table, with information compiled from 32 hospitality companies:

What degree of sexual harassment would you consider the following?

Attitude to sexual harassment Letters, telephone calls or materials of a sexual nature


Sexually suggestive looks or gestures


Deliberate touching, leaning over, cornering or pinching


Pressure for dates


Sexual teasing including jokes or remarks


Very serious 75.0 18.8 71.9 15.6 9.7
Serious 18.8 46.9 28.1 31.3 38.7
Fairly serious 6.3    18.8 31.3 22.6
Minor –   15.6 21.9 29.0
Total 100.0    100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0

Suggestive looks, pressure for dates and sexual teasing and jokes have the smallest number of respondents labelling it ‘very serious’. But even the smallest of interactions can prove to be very uncomfortable to a hotel worker – and even more so when that person has to deal with it on a daily basis or from the same person or group. Kate Nicholls, chief executive of ALMR, hints that some standards need to be asserted. “Businesses should ensure that team members are fully briefed”, she says, “ that any form of harassment, sexual or otherwise, is not to be tolerated whether it be by other members of staff or customers.”

On 26 November last year, an anonymous female chef told the Herald Scotland that she was physically abused by her colleagues so many times during the first week in her first job at a hotel, that her sous chef found her crying in the walk-in kitchen. When the chef, who was 17 at the time, told him what was happening, he reportedly told her “not to wear fancy underwear as they can see it through [her] clothes and [she was] asking for trouble”. While she acknowledged that the male and female staff were treated alike, she added: “When they do it to other guys it’s a dominance thing. But also it’s different when it’s a woman and the man’s your superior, 10 years older. It’s hard because you don’t feel like you can go to anyone.” It quickly became the workplace ‘banter’ where following her attempt to tell someone about it, the chef admitted that she found herself behaving “hard and filthy back” as a way of surviving and fitting in, despite not wanting to.

The Scarlet Hotel near Newquay was criticised by judge Simon Carr for “trying to protect their reputation”, after the hotel failed to report on a sexual assault…

In November, The Scarlet Hotel near Newquay was criticised by judge Simon Carr for “trying to protect their reputation”, after the hotel failed to report on a sexual assault committed by one of its staff to the authorities. A guest told police that a masseur working at the hotel brushed his hand against her exposed nipple before massaging her bare breast and reaching under her disposable pants to touch her genitals. The woman said nothing was done about it until she took it upon herself to report the crime to the police. The employee in question – 39-year-old masseur Antonio Stampone – admitted to the assault at the Truro Crown Court and was given a suspended sentence. The hotel later released an apology statement saying it was “seeking to understand how she wanted the complaint taken forward when the police became involved”. The spokesman for the hotel went on to say that the the business would “never attempt to downplay or cover up an incident such as this”.

If there is an apparent lack of action from an establishment against allegations of sexual assaults can be as damaging as the incident itself and because of the spotlight that is being put on the issue, it is currently being prioritised by many as something that needs addressing across the whole industry. TripAdvisor recently introduced a temporary feature on its website, where hotels which have had sexual assault incidents reported would have a warning badge placed on their review pages. This was following the backlash the review site received after an American woman accused it of repeatedly removing her review where she claimed she was raped at a hotel.

TripAdvisor then made the decision to mark hotels where allegations had been made with a warning simply reading: “TripAdvisor has been made aware of recent media reports or events concerning this property which may not be reflected in reviews found on this listing. Accordingly, you may wish to perform additional research for information about this property when making your travel plans.”

Companies and the people who work for them are currently facing intense scrutiny – the spectre of scandal is not going anywhere fast, not least because the trickle of famous stars and politicians has not yet stemmed. But it makes this an opportune moment for every responsible manager and owner to ensure staff feel comfortable raising the alarm about an incident and ensure it is treated with sensitivity and seriousness. As Ducker says: “Any organisation that does not have such a policy and culture should use the current headlines as a wake up call and introduce a policy ASAP.”

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