by Rose Klales

During the summer, droves of teenagers enter the workforce. These young people hope to pad their college resumes and earn a little money before returning to school. But many teenage workers, particularly young women, receive more than they bargained for: the unwanted attention of patrons.

The Local spoke to some area teens about their experiences with harassment from customers. In the interest of maintaining privacy, the teens’ names and the names of the places of business will not be disclosed.

One teen shared a story from a charity event she was helping organize at her school; she was guiding guests to their tables and answering questions about the event when an older man commented: “a pretty lady in a black dress taking charge really turns me on.”

The young woman tried to report the man to her supervisor, hoping that he could be removed from the event. But her supervisor told her there was nothing he could do; the older man was an important donor, and they could not risk upsetting him.

Another teenager noted that not all encounters are so blatant. She’s a staff member at a local business that hires many teenagers. She noted that most of her interactions with older men are normal. Occasionally, however, an interaction that begins normally can quickly turn uncomfortable.

“They’ll start with an innocent question, but then they ask what your hours are, when they’ll see you again,” she said. “ It sounds like an innocent conversation, but it’s about body language and intonation.”

She also emphasized the power imbalance between severs and consumers that puts the server in a difficult position.

“It’s difficult because you have to be polite,” she said. ‘You can’t tell them to go away because you’re employed and they’re in a much higher position of power.”

Both teens stressed the discomfort being harassed induced -they felt isolated and helpless. One of the girls noted that her managers were willing to help, but knew that they could not do anything to help her because upsetting guests could mean loss of employment.

But how frequently do these things happen? Are these teens just outliers? It would not seem so.

The Harvard Business Review conducted a study on harassment in the restaurant industry in 2018. It found that 90% of women and 70% of men experienced harassment at work. Some harassment came from coworkers, but most came from customers. Many workers surveyed said that they felt uncomfortable coming forward about the issue because their managers would either disregard it or help very minimally.

The reason these situations often arise between servers and customers, older men and younger women, have much to do with basic social power dynamics.

Adam Galinsky, the Vikram S. Pandit Professor of Business and Chair of Management Division at Columbia University’s Business School, conducted a study about power dynamics between men and women. He discovered that people have a range of acceptable behaviors that directly correlates to how much agency they have in society. Men have more power in society, Galinsky said, and therefore have a broader range of acceptable behaviors. This is especially true of servers and consumers – consumers hold more power than servers.

As a result, men that flirt with teenage servers benefit from two wide ranges of acceptable behavior. But how can folks be allies to these young women?

According to the Harvard Business Review, there needs to be a holistic change within the industry. Galinsky argues that many must reexamine their own internal biases and assess their behavior toward those with less power.

On a smaller scale, the Harvard Business Review’s study concluded with a recommendation for bystanders: If you observe a customer behaving inappropriately toward a server, it’s best to subtly disrupt the situation. Ask to speak to the server and offer support. The Review encourages gentle disruption because it does not inflame the situation. If you cannot directly disrupt the situation, then simply assuring the server that you saw the event and offering support is also an excellent show of allyship.

Although some might think Chestnut Hill is exempt from such behaviors, they are pervasive in every part of society. Cynics would argue that there is simply no way to solve the issue, but if only a few people take the time to examine their own position in power dynamics and step forward to help, perhaps things could improve.

Rose Klales is a Local intern.

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