Diners often come to restaurants as part of a romantic evening, but is there romance behind the scene as well? According to Vault.com’s 2007 Office Romance Survey, 47 percent of U.S. employees (across a variety of industries) have had an office romance, while 20 percent say they ended up marrying or engaging in a long-term relationship with a co-worker.
Now, think outside the cubicle. Restaurant staffs are predominantly young and single and work in an atmosphere that encourages intermingling. “Employees work in close quarters under sometimes-stressful circumstances. Employees typically work the same or like schedules and talk about life when business is slower. Over time, employees build relationships and like spending time together outside of the restaurant as well,” says Kathy Johnson, senior vice president at Godfather’s Pizza, adding that romance, therefore, is “very common.”
While work may seem like a good place to meet a potential spouse, there are a myriad of problems that can develop starting with neglected duties and ending with sexual harassment lawsuits. So what is a restaurant to do when love blossoms?
“You certainly can’t outlaw it. People are people,” says restaurant consultant Bill Martin. “As soon as it starts to affect their work or other workers, that is a function of what kind of relationship you have with your staff and whether you are talking with people all the time,” Martin adds.
At Zachary’s Pizza in Tucson, Arizona, owner David Ellis agrees with this type of approach. “I expect my employees, because they are adults, to behave in an appropriate manner at work. I would be inclined to give guidance if I thought something was inappropriate.” In fact, Ellis recently dealt with two servers who tended to lapse into starry-eyed conversations with one another while they were supposed to be working. “They would start talking and forget where they were. Things would be going on around them and they wouldn’t be aware. It was a little bit aggravating to some people. We would have to use their names and snap them out of it,” Ellis says. When he discussed the matter with his head waitress, she pleaded the lovebirds’ case, reminding Ellis that her spouse once was Zachary’s assistant manager.
Ellis remembered that back when this head waitress and assistant manager were dating, he hadn’t even been aware of the relationship until the gentleman came for advice about “real love.” “He had been seeing her for a while and I hadn’t even been aware she was the one. Usually, that is not something that is shared (with owners). I’m not invited to parties and usually am outside the realm of knowledge,” Ellis says.
Some would say Ellis was lucky that he didn’t experience any problems when his head waitress and assistant manager became involved. A supervisor dating at work can lead to problems more serious than neglected duties.
“You have at least the perception of favored treatment. Either the person will get a better deal than the average or a worse deal than the average,” Martin says. To combat this some restaurants have strict policies against supervisor/ employee relationships.
“We do not have any sort of rules for subordinate employees other than the workplace is not the place for affection to be shown. We don’t allow the intermingling of managers,” says Matthew Boyd, co-owner of Buffalo Brothers Pizza and Wing Company. This policy is made clear to managers upon being hired.
Restaurants “have to build camaraderie and this tends to be defeated if you allow managers to pick and choose who they want to be with,” Boyd says. There is no warning or reprimand. “It is a one strike and you are out kind of thing.”
Godfather’s has what it calls a “nepotism” policy, forbidding employees to date or live with a subordinate. “We approach supervisors if we suspect nepotism. If they admit interest, we offer a transfer to a new location. We never approach the subordinate employee,” Johnson says.
“The best situations are when the employee approaches us and asks for help solving the problem. They know our company doesn’t allow these types of relationships in the workplace, but they want to continue dating. We’re eager to help both individuals because we don’t want to lose quality employees. If a person denies there’s a relationship and is dishonest, he or she will be terminated when it’s revealed,” Johnson adds.
Although Martin is pretty anti-Big Brother when it comes to relationships, he does believe restaurants should have a written policy against sexual harassment. “The only way to protect yourself is to have a very strong, clear, religiously enforced sexual harassment policy that says don’t do it,” he says.
This is the approach that Hungry Howie’s Pizza has taken. “Our stated policies are to protect all employees from any form of discrimination, including sexual harassment,” says President Steve Jackson.
“If (employees) feel any unwelcome pressure to become involved with any official, manager, supervisor, employee agent, or non-employee of the company with whom (they) interact in the courts of performing (their) work responsibilities we urge (them) to use the complaint procedure,” adds Al Newman, Hungry Howie’s director of training. ?
Policies dealing with employee relationships and sexual harassment are becoming “more common” amongst larger restaurants, but they are not “standard” for smaller companies even though a “best practice for policy” should be a “best practice no matter what type of operation or ownership structure,” says William Bender of W.H. Bender & Associates.
A quick search on the web shows that sexual harassment suits can be costly, with estimates for average settlements ranging from $88,000 to even $1 million.
According to an article written for FindLaw by Duff, White and Turner, LLC, “an employer can avoid or reduce automatic liability if it can show both (a) that it exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any harassing behavior and (b) that the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any complaint procedure.”
In the article, the firm recommends that companies not only have sexual harassment policies, but also make sure employees understand them, perhaps by annual reviews and signed acknowledgments. Bill Martin, the Restaurant Doctor, agrees. “Make the policy something you talk about so it is not just, ‘Read this and follow the rules.’ Make sure everyone understands what it means,” Martin says.
Monta Monaco Hernon is a freelance business, technology and features writer based in La Grange Park, Illinois.