Why do most service workers encounter sexual harassment? Tips & forced friendliness

NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Service industry workers are universally expected to do their duties in a friendly manner and with a smile on their faces. In return for friendly service, consumers generally leave a tip in appreciation. These two factors are the foundation upon which the entire service industry operates in the United States. Unfortunately, a new study concludes that both of those practices contribute to a culture of sexual harassment in the service industry that sees a majority of workers encountering awful behavior from those they help.

Study authors from the University of Notre Dame found that over the past six months, over 66 percent of restaurant employees reported dealing with some form of sexual harassment in the workplace. The fact that service workers still endure sexual harassment in 2021 isn’t breaking news. This latest research, however, is the first to investigate why exactly patrons feel so comfortable treating service workers in this fashion.

Customers encouraged to behave badly?

In short, researchers say that service workers feel pressure to maintain a pleasant demeanor with customers regardless of how consumers treat them. This is because they are dependent on tips and because their employer expects them to maintain a professional appearance. Meanwhile, study authors believe the often-forced friendliness these workers must portray in the face of mistreatment ends up encouraging bad behavior on the shopper’s part.

“Service employee dependence on tips and requirements for friendly displays lead customers to experience a heightened sense of power — which can lead them to engage in sexual harassment,” says study author Timothy Kundro, assistant professor of management and organization at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, in a university release. “We show it’s really the joint effects of customer tipping and requirements for positive gestures that drive sexual harassment. When either isn’t present, customers don’t feel the same sense of power.”

‘Service with a smile’ puts servers in powerless positions

This study consists of two research projects. The first asked 92 full-time service employees to estimate how much of their income comes from tips, as well as the extent to which their employer mandates that they maintain a positive demeanor with customers at all times. Workers also had to gauge how much power they felt customers had over them. Finally, participants shared their experiences with sexual harassment while on the job.

For the second half of the study, the team surveyed 229 male consumers to research the “customer” aspect of the equation. After researchers “manipulated” a hypothetical scenario in which the men knew a smiling female waitress serving them was dependent on tips, they asked the men to report how in control they felt and how willing they may be to engage in sexually harassing behavior.

“It’s really compelling, in my view,” Prof. Kundro adds, “because we replicated this from both the perspective of the employee and the customer and our findings for each were the same — employees who rely on tips face more sexual harassment, but only when required to engage in ‘service with a smile.'”

Study authors conclude that if employers in the service industry want to help their workers feel safer and avoid sexual harassment, they should make sure they aren’t financially dependent on tips and do away with strict “service with a smile” rules.

“You really can’t have both,” Prof. Kundro concludes. “Yet, organizations often do — which may explain why sexual harassment is so pervasive in the service industry. Our research shows that paying a fair wage or eliminating tipping practices can reduce the power differential between a service worker and an employee. Alternatively, organizations can also reduce or eliminate positive display requirements.”

The study is published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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