Workplace violence in the hospitality industry

The prevalence of violence and harassment that hospitality workers are exposed to, namely at the hands of members of the public, has been highlighted by numerous studies on the topic (for an overview, see Ram 2015, Scott 1998).

Long hours, high social contact, large crowds and alcohol all create potentially unsafe working environment which, in turn, often leads to high staff turnover rate (Ram 2015).

violent customer threatening staff with a bottle of beer


A pattern of abusive power relations

The age-old mantra "the customer is king" reflects the importance of customers or consumers in every business. It bears heavily on hospitality workers who are uniquely dependent on the satisfaction of customers/guests. 

This host-guest imbalance can lead to a pattern of abusive power relations (Ram 2015). Thus, incidents of both violence and sexual harassment of low-status employees by guests are very common in the hospitality and tourism industry. This is exacerbated by excessive alcohol consumption by guests and the blurring of the boundaries between private and public space due to the close contact between between staff and customers (Ram 2015).


Sexual Harassment

As the face of the venue, bartenders and front-of-house staff are depended upon to provide a welcoming and friendly service, which can all too easily be misconstrued by patrons, who then exhibit unwanted attention and inappropriate behaviour (Carruthers 2019). 

The rapid development of social media means that this type of toxic behaviours often extends online (Privitera & Campbell, 2009) with dire consequences for staff mental health.

A recent survey by Unite (Jan 2018) showed that 9 out 10 hospitality staff have experienced sexual harassment at work...more than half said the perpetrators were customers (Blagg 2018). When it comes to sexual harassment, Poulston (2008) found that ‘casual and part-time female staff’ are the most vulnerable population.

But the problem is not limited to the workplace. As reported by journalists, "most women who work in bars and restaurants are left to find their way home late at night - and sadly most have stories to tell of harassment" (Geddes 2022). 

In 2021, East Dunbartonshire council set a precedent by adding supplementary criteria to their licensing policies, which includes a requirement for licence holders to consider staff returning home safely after the premises have closed.

Additionally, the risk of sexual harassment can be mitigated by adequate training which includes situational awareness, asserting boundaries and maintaining control of personal space, and self-defence (Hollander 2014, 2016; Senn 2015). Ample evidence shows that Self-defence for women works.


Alcohol and violence

Bernadette Scott's 1998 study of the hospitality sector found that 45% of employees had suffered at the hands of 'aggressors'.

Alcohol is a uniquely aggravating factor (Reiss & Roth 1994) because it disrupts normal brain functions: it impairs our cognitive function and reduces our ability to think straight (i.e. we may miss social and environmental cues that help us to interpret situations rationally) and  it narrows our attention while suppressing activity in parts of the brain associated with inhibition and impulse control (Denton et al. 2018). 

This can lead to angry reactions from people who would otherwise be cordial, and dramatically increases the risk of violent reactions from people who have underlying irritability or anger issues (Shorey et al. 2017).

In a community-based study, Pernanen (1991) found that 42 percent of violent crimes reported to the police involved alcohol, although 51 percent of the victims interviewed believed that their assailants had been drinking.

Cocktails of alcohol mixed with caffeinated energy drinks have shown to increase hostility and escalation in bar conflicts (Miller et al. 2016).


Duty of Care

Violence in pubs and clubs is an ever present risk particularly when large amounts of alcohol are consumed. While the duty of care in relation to staff is clearly established, some points such as the safety of staff after work or the duty of care owed to customers have long been unclear. Recent legal decisions, however, have set precedents.

In 2021, East Dunbartonshire council added a requirement for licence holders to consider staff returning home safely after the premises have closed (Geddes 2022).

Similarly, the decision of Court of Appeal, following a stabbing at the Metropolitain Bar in London in 2010, and more recently at the former Cumberland Hotel, was that there is a duty of care in the circumstances owed by the bar/club/hotel to protect its customers (Ainsworth 2011; Lees 2019).

 

"The key for responsible businesses will therefore be to ensure that they take sufficient steps to safeguard not only their staff, but also their customers."
Nick Lees, Dispute Resolution

 

These cases have implications for the hospitality industry in general (Lees 2019) and more particularly for licensed premises where alcohol is consumed because of the increased risk of violence. In these circumstances, it is likely that a court would find the risk of injury to staff and/or customers to be reasonably foreseeable (Ainsworth 2011; Lees 2019).

Failure to consider the risks and act accordingly may mean that in future, you may be held liable for the acts of violence of customers on your premises (Ainsworth 2011). 

 

Active security measures

An act of violence is a difficult event to manage which is why it’s imperative that companies have a plan to deal with workplace violence that includes prevention and response. Corporate self-defence and safety training programmes are the perfect choice. 

 

"Training sessions designed to prevent and/or mitigate workplace violence incidents, including hands-on practice, are highly recommended for any business."

Christian Waeldner, Crisis management

 

Operators should thus ensure that they:

  • Carry out a regular risk assessment covering the risk of violence to customers and staff
  • Implement appropriate measures to minimise the risks identified
  • Train staff in policies adopted and insure that they are aware of security measures and procedures to be followed in the event of any incident
  • Train staff to react appropriately should violence occur
  • Ensure that all staff are aware of and use, a reporting system for incidences of violence or related matters
  • Review and monitor assessments and policies regularly

Being able to manage such situations while staying safe and keeping people around safe too is key. The good news is that it is not complicated and can be developed with a bit of training.

A well-developed self-defence course for hospitality workers would make a difference. Beyond the physical and technical aspects, the review of real life situations allows staff members to be better prepared and help them to anticipate such occurrences.





References:

Ainsworth Ch. (2011) Protect your customers against violence or be held responsible. Freeths, Legal Specialists.

Blagg H. (2018) Not on the menu. Unite survey, unitelive.org.

Carruthers N. (2019) SB Voices: The dark side of hospitality. thespiritsbusiness.com.

Denson TF, Blundell KA, Schofield TP, Schira MM, Krämer UM. (2018) The neural correlates of alcohol-related aggression. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 18(2):203-215.

Geddes M. (2022) The reality of getting home safely for women who work in hospitality: ‘I’ve felt unsafe so many times’

Hollander J. (2016) The importance of self-defense training for sexual violence prevention. Feminism & Psychology.

Hollander J. (2014) Does Self-Defense Training Prevent Sexual Violence Against Women? Violence Against Women, 20:252.

Lees N. (2019) Duty of care to protect customers? walkermorris.co.uk.

Miller KE, Quigley BM, Eliseo-Arras RK, Ball NJ. (2016) Alcohol mixed with energy drink use as an event-level predictor of physical and verbal aggression in bar conflicts. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 40(1):161-9.

Pernanen, K. (1991) Alcohol in Human Violence. New York: Guilford Press. 

Poulston, J. (2008). Metamorphosis in hospitality: A tradition of sexual harassment. International. Journal of Hospitality Management, 27(2), 232–240.

Privitera, C., & Campbell, M. A. (2009). Cyberbullying: The new face of workplace bullying? CyberPsychology & Behavior, 12(4), 395–400.

Ram Y. (2015) Hostility or hospitality? A review on violence, bullying and sexual harassment in the tourism and hospitality industry. Current Issues in Tourism Volume 21, 2018 - Issue 7. 

Reiss, A.J., & Roth, J.A., eds. (1994) Understanding and Preventing Violence. Vol. 3. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Scott B. (1998) Workplace violence in the UK hospitality industry: impacts and recommendations. Progress in Tourism and Hospitality Research 4:337-347.

Senn & al. (2015), Efficacy of a Sexual Assault Resistance Program for University Women, The New England Journal of Medecine.

Shorey RC, McNulty JK, Moore TM, Stuart GL. (2017) Trait anger and partner-specific anger management moderate the temporal association between alcohol use and dating violence. J Stud Alcohol Drugs 78(2):313-318.