advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

I was groped by a customer

I am a cis-gendered man who works as a server at an upscale restaurant in a major metropolitan city. Recently, a patron—who, so far as I could tell, was female—reached out and gently squeezed my a** while I was taking her order. Her friend (who also appeared to identify as female) saw this and chuckled while I did my best to maintain my composure. It was an extremely awkward moment. When I told my manager (also female) about it, she became visibly uncomfortable at first, but then basically shrugged it off with a laugh. And when I shared what happened with another server (again, female), she replied, “Dude, that happens to women all the time” and walked away. I don’t know what’s more upsetting: the incident itself, or my coworkers’ reactions! Should I go to HR? Or just ignore the whole thing since it’s unlikely I’ll have to wait on those two customers again anyway (they’re not regulars)… – Name withheld

Were the sexual orientation of each actor in this scenario reversed—that is, if you identified as female, and everyone else as male—my advice would be as unequivocal as it is obvious: Go to HR. They should have policies in place for dealing with precisely this sort of assault.

However, given that you’re a man and the other principals are all female, the situation is somewhat more complicated…

Just kidding.

My advice to you is exactly the same: Report the incident to your Human Resource department, as well as your manager’s mishandling of it.

At this point in the saga of all humankind, sexual harassment of the sort you describe cannot, and should not be tolerated under any circumstances. It disrespects and demeans you, the victim, in a fundamental way, and in a situation where you have little control or opportunity for recourse. Nor is there any room for double standards here. Whether the aggressor is male or female is completely, utterly irrelevant. To paraphrase the 19th Century American poet Emma Lazarus: “Until all of us feel respected, none of us are respected.”[1]

First, a word or two about your co-worker’s disappointing response.

She is of course correct in pointing out that women have been dealing with similarly abhorrent behavior (and far worse) for centuries, millennia even. But what? Do two wrongs really make a “right”? Or perhaps there is some cosmic scale out there tallying up all the instances of sexual harassment against both women and men, and that once “balance” has been achieved, it will then let us all know so we can finally, finally put this sort of deplorable behavior behind us and move on as a species? I think not.

But bear in mind that your colleague has almost certainly been the victim of harassment herself – probably more times than she cares to remember. She may also have felt powerless to offer you any real help, given her status within your organization (that is, as a server, just like you). Her remark may therefore reflect frustration more than any outright callousness.

Let’s just chalk it up to her having had a bad day.

Your manager’s handling of the incident was, of course, even more disappointing. It’s also negligent managing in the extreme.

It is no less than her professional duty to protect you and your colleagues from this sort of aggression, no matter who commits it, nor who the victim might be. Not only has she failed you in this most fundamental way, by shrugging it off as she did she sets back the cause that so many others—mostly of her own gender, I might add—have worked so hard to advance. Lest anyone forget our history here, the right to equal protection under the law regardless of sex was itself furthered by arguing on behalf of men who had been discriminated against because of gender – a brilliantly successful strategy pioneered by none other than the notorious Ruth Bader Ginsburg.[2] 

To my mind then, for your manager to be relieved of her responsibilities as manager would not be inappropriate.

Finally, some of you may be wondering what should have been done in this situation. Having worked in the service industry myself, for me the answer is obvious. You would not have been asked to interact with these two customers again. Ever.

Instead, your manager should have approached the table and simply said:

Hi. My name is _____, and I’m the manager here. I’ll be taking care of you for the remainder of your meal. Are you ready to place an order..?



[1] Lazarus’ original quote, so far as I can tell, was: “Until we all are free, we are none of us free.”

[2] One such lawsuit that advanced this important cause was Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. In it, Mr. Moritz claimed he had been discriminated against on the basis of sex when he was denied a tax deduction to care for his invalid mother – something he would have received had he been a woman. He lost his case before United States Tax Court, but that verdict was overturned by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, with Ruth Bader Ginsburg arguing on behalf of the plaintiff. (The 2018 film On the Basis of Sex focused in part on Ginsburg’s representation of Moritz in this case.)

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  1. Derek Steel

    It kind of depends on the timing. The strategy you suggest of the manager stepping in to take care of the table would only be valid if the “told my manager” part happened immediately, and not after the fact, after the shift, etc. Also, I would note that if the manager does take over the table, it would be appropriate to give any gratuity received to the originally groped male server.

  2. Bill

    This is one of the more complex workplace / manager – employee issues you’ve addressed and makes me very grateful I don’t work as a manager in a restaurant. What a minefield of opportunities to p*** people off and inadvertently do the wrong thing.

    I like the approach suggested here. It sends a message without being overly confrontational and relieves the employee of having to be subjected to more weird pawing. (And yes, the server should DEFINITELY get any tip).

    But it only makes me wonder about the best way to handle *countless* variations on the same scenario. I guess the good news is heightened awareness puts everyone on notice that unwanted touching is not cool and that managers need to support their employees. But the how part seems REALLY fraught. Thx for surfacing this issue.


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