Why the battle against harassment and bullying must start from the top

It is well documented that bullying and harassment remain a major problem throughout the hospitality industry.

Recent years have seen repeated attempts at raising awareness of these issues. A special website, Hospitality Speaks, has been created for reporting incidents of misconduct. A string of high profile figures across the industry, from Raymond Blanc to Asma Khan, have stepped forward to highlight the problems and call for change.

While this alone will not stamp out bullying, it is an encouraging sign, because the battle against such behaviour must start at the top. I have outlined in previous features how to recognise when strong management becomes bullying, as well as practical steps hoteliers can take to tackle misconduct among staff.

My focus today is on why it is so important for hospitality bosses to lead by example.

First and foremost, research repeatedly shows that it is senior managers who inflict bullying on more junior staff.  A poll by Monster found 51% of respondents were bullied by their boss or manager, while 39% were bullied by colleagues.

It is obvious why this is the case – managers are in a position of authority over more junior staff and instruct them on what to do. In a highly pressured working environment, forceful management too often tips over into bullying.

Most hospitality businesses have a strict hierarchical structure – think restaurant kitchen where the head chef rules supreme. This makes it even more vital that those at the top act as role models for the rest of their staff.

Top chef Andrew Clarke who is leading a campaign to address mental health issues in the restaurant industry, described the kind of high-pressure environment in which bullying can flourish. 

He said: “It’s no accident that kitchens are often likened to the army. The hierarchy, the hard work, the shouting and discipline – that kind of thing. I feel that there is that macho thing that’s going on, that people don’t want to show weakness.

“Seeing someone else in the kitchen getting stripped down, verbally stripped down and insulted and just called all sorts of names just because they messed up once or a couple of times, that’s not nurturing.We need to really look after each other so this macho environment needs to change.”

The way senior managers treat the staff directly below them has a knock-on effect throughout the organisation. If senior leaders take out their own stress and pressure on those below them, they will make those staff feel stressed and pressured and much more likely to pass this on to their teams, creating a damaging domino effect.

The good news is that this also works in reverse. If, rather than flinging insults and shouting, the boss treats all staff with respect and care, this will be witnessed and replicated throughout the team. 

Senior leaders’ conduct is vital, because they are in charge – if they themselves bully and harass staff, they are effectively giving the green light to others to behave in the same way without reproach.

Bosses can unwittingly permit and normalise a culture of bullying. The more entrenched this becomes, the more difficult it is to change. An organisation, whatever its size and remit, cannot instil a culture of respect if its most powerful figures undermine such values by their own actions.

Why is this so important?

Workplace harassment and bullying not only has a damaging effect on the mental and physical health of the direct victims, but affects the morale and productivity of the wider team.

It can create a toxic culture of fear throughout a business. When staff are unhappy, undervalued and intimidated, their performance suffers. Nearly half of the people surveyed (46%) said bullying had an adverse impact on their performance at work and their mental health, a TUC survey found. 

This affects their business performance and puts more strain on other staff- particularly in the case of smaller hotel or restaurant enterprises in which it is vital that every team member pulls their weight. 

It also means the loss of talented staff – more than one in three people leave jobs due to bullying, the same TUC survey found. This is particularly problematic in an industry already struggling with a major skills shortage, which is likely to be worsened by the UK severing ties with Europe.

Hoteliers, restaurateurs and others in hospitality should be doing all they can to attract and retain good staff, by creating happy supportive workplaces where talent can blossom.

By Sylvia Sage, programme director at Corporate Learning Solutions

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