Calling out Karen.

IT WAS AN HOUR or so before dinner rush when I walked into the pub for my after-shift beer, or “shifty.” I noticed the servers were huddled by the server station comforting Rachel, one of our newer team members. The manager told me there had been a bad interaction with a customer the night before and Rachel was still upset by it. I pulled Rachel aside and she told me a family had brought their elderly father in for dinner. My face burned with anger as she described how the man sexually harassed her repeatedly throughout their meal, even touching her inappropriately on one occasion. Rachel was visibly bothered throughout the interaction and the man’s daughter explained he was in the early stages of dementia and encouraged Rachel not to take it personally. Rachel tried her best to be patient but as his behavior grew more aggressive, she felt compelled to speak up. 

She told the family he was being inappropriate and that if the behavior continued, she was going to get the manager. The daughter laughed. “You’re in the service industry,” she snarled. “You need to get used to this kind of thing.” They asked for their bill and left. Rachel cleared the table and noticed that not only had the group left no tip on an $83.17 tab, but they had also written “change your attitude!” on the check. Though she was hardly a confrontational person, Rachel walked outside and demanded an explanation from the guests. The daughter swore at Rachel and insulted her appearance, and Rachel came back inside in tears. Soon after, our manager fielded an angry phone call from the patrons, complaining about their dining experience. The manager apologized — unaware of what had actually occurred — took down their address and dropped a gift card in the mail. The incident was soon swallowed up in the chaos of a busy Wednesday night. 

But the next day Rachel was still upset and so was the rest of the female staff. I felt guilty because to some extent I knew I was responsible. I was all too aware of the times in the past I had turned an indifferent eye to this sort of thing. Patrons demeaning servers has been a part of restaurant culture for too long, largely because the people in charge (me) accept it as a cost of doing business. Most women in the service industry become numb to it or skilled at playing it off, but there’s usually real pain not far beneath the surface. I realized it was well past time for a gesture. 

I found the customer’s address on a crumpled up piece of receipt paper in the office trash can and wrote her a letter. I explained her conduct was unacceptable and though the gift card we promised had already been mailed, we wouldn’t be honoring it. Her patronage didn’t give her the right to demean our employees and she wasn’t welcome in the restaurant ever again. I sent Rachel a copy of the letter and I shared it with the staff as well. I posted the customer’s name and photo and asked them to inform a manager if she ever set foot in the restaurant again. 

Though the damage couldn’t be undone, I learned it’s never too late to make a positive change. The staff was understanding when I apologized for not doing a better job in the past, and were quick to forgive me. The experience taught me something about leadership I didn’t know: Humility is one of the biggest gifts I can give my team. It breaks down the wall between boss and employee, and shows that everyone has a role to play in shaping the company. Admitting mistakes isn’t weakness; it communicates authenticity, builds trust, and most of all, demonstrates that transparency isn’t just for customers. Our team deserves at least the same degree of respect, honesty and engagement that we afford strangers who walk through the door, and it’s important for me to acknowledge that the customer isn’t always right. Sometimes the customer is a jerk, and our employees have to know I’ll defend them when it’s necessary. They’ll never truly believe in a company that doesn’t do right by them.

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