Heads Above Water: Toxic Work Environments in the Service Industry

Stress comes with every job, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m a firm believer that if you care about your job, you are going to feel pressure from time to time. It’s a natural process that when dealt with healthily, is completely normal and okay. It is no secret that the service industry can be stressful because of the daily tasks and the lifestyle itself. Like other job fields, this stress comes naturally. With every shift, you will feel the pressure and it usually dissipates as everything winds down. Sometimes the stress will linger for longer than you would like, I personally feel like this is normal as well. We all have bad days, but sometimes those bad days turn into bad weeks, bad months and so on. The real question is: when does your job cross the line from stressful into a toxic work environment?

There are bars and restaurants that are outright bad places to work. Places that are owned by racists, sexists and those who simply abuse their employees. Environments like this are disgraceful, and they deserve their own conversations. Right now, I want to talk about something a bit different, work environments that are not necessarily morally or ethically compromised but still are toxic for their employees and the industry.

If you’ve been in the industry long enough, I’m sure you know what I am talking about. I don’t think I’ve met a service industry professional that hasn’t worked somewhere that seemed to have all the qualities of a great place to work, but underneath was an awful work environment. I’m talking about the restaurants and bars that operate well enough with a solid staff and opportunities to make decent money, but at their core, they are bad for their workers.

Every restaurant has its issues, but they can usually be addressed by owners and management to ultimately improve the work environment. The problem with these restaurants with the underlying harmful environments is that it’s not just one problem, but a whole host of problems that workers put up with because they need their jobs. These are things that need to be discussed and addressed for the good of the entire industry and its people.

In my experience, bad work environments start with bad management. This isn’t always the case, but it’s a good place to start the discussion. From owners to the lowest level of management at your restaurant, it is your entire teams’ responsibility to create and sustain a positive culture and work environment. You must also remember that your management team is only as strong as its weakest link. In my time of managing, I’ve noticed that employees don’t necessarily recognize the chain of command as managers do, especially new employees. This means that if your lowest level manager is disrespectful, unreasonable and bad at their job, it will reflect on the entire team. This is a slippery slope that can lead to distrust and ultimately disdain for your workplace.

So what qualities are red flags for restaurant and bar managers? There are countless attributes that can make a poor leader, but some are more damaging than others.

  • Disrespectful/Unreasonable: This is unforgivable, in a stressful restaurant environment you need to be kind and understanding to your staff as much as possible. Workers need managers that will listen to them, even if it’s difficult. Disrespectful and unreasonable managers can break your employees will and create distrust.
  • Lazy/Incompetent: These are the managers that you look at and wonder “How did you even get this job?” Lazy managers breed contempt within the workplace. Sometimes managers are just bad at their jobs and do not know what they are doing. Even if it is not their fault, it needs to be addressed.
  • Too Lax: Although it’s nice to be friends with everyone and get along all the time, that’s just not the way management works. Being too lax on problematic issues and employees can make your staff feel like they are not listened to and ultimately do not matter to management.
  • Narcissism: Its troublesome for your employees if their managers are so wrapped up in themselves that they can’t empathize with their staff and care only about how their employees’ work affects them.
  • Vindictive: Management teams need feedback just as much as their employees. Some people can’t accept criticism and will do everything they can to get back at anyone who disagrees. This creates an environment where your employees will be afraid to bring up important issues that need to be fixed.

Again, there are plenty more qualities that make for poor management, these just seem to be the most common I see in the service industry. Not every manager is perfect, we all have our strengths and weaknesses, so it is important to find a balance for your workplace. Furthermore, managers can be coached and developed just like any other employee, so as upper management it is incredibly important to recognize your staff’s weaknesses and address them

Toxic work environments are not always boiled down to poor management, it is often beyond it, tucked away in the culture of the business. I have seen some restaurants with incredibly supportive and positive cultures, and at the other end, some places have a culture that can be tremendously harmful to the workers.

One of the common pitfalls of the service industry is expecting too much from your employees on so many different levels. For a business model that pays much of their staff below minimum wage and often doesn’t provide any benefits, restaurants and bars are notorious for putting senseless expectations on their staff.

For example, I have worked at multiple restaurants that don’t provide health insurance but also require a doctor’s note anytime you call in. I get it, if you call in at a restaurant, you are almost guaranteed to be putting your work in the hands of someone else. Despite this, if you are sick, you should not be handling other peoples’ food and drinks. You should be at home resting. Every service industry professional I know has experienced this firsthand. After years in the industry, I have convinced myself to never call in, even when I should be going to the doctor. This is simply just a norm in the industry, it seems like a lack of self-care regarding illnesses is worn like a badge of honor. Managers and owners have a responsibility to take care of their staff and ensure no one with a contagious sickness is handling food and beverages. Be understanding of your staff when they are sick and work with them to ensure they get the rest and care they need.

These expectations go beyond taking a day off, some work environments expect too much from their employees while on the clock as well. This can be in the form of extraordinarily long hours and putting your staff into precarious situations. As said before, long hours should be expected in the industry, but some establishments push this norm to the extreme and in the end, it is the workers who are affected. I’ve worked in restaurants who refused to hire new employees because the cost of training them could be wasted if they quit. The management knew that it would push their staff to their limits, but we could get through it. Although we all survived the busy season of the year running a barebones operation, we all reached the end of our ropes because the business didn’t want to fork out money to hire and train employees.

Expectations like these create a macho, unhealthy work environment. The kind of places that have a philosophy of “push yourself to your physical and mental limits and if you can’t handle it you will be chastised.” This is an immediate red flag for a toxic work environment, and if you promote this in yours, you should take a step back and restructure the way you operate. It is bad for your staff and the entire industry.

It’s natural for a restaurant to have high expectations of their employees, it ensures that the guests are happy and the business runs well. Every employer should set the bar high for their staff, but they must also understand that it’s a balance. If you expect a lot from your employees, then they will expect a lot from you. If your end of the bargain is not held up, your employees will not be happy.

Culture goes beyond just the work itself. It extends to how situations are dealt with in the workplace. Restaurants and bars are prone to management playing favorites with their staff. Often, problematic employees are given second, third, fourth chances and beyond. One of the most common reasons for this is that management often feels that the employee’s ability to get their job down outweighs their faults. This is a viewpoint I understand, good workers should be given chances, but managers need to realize when enough is enough and act. On the other end, managers often give out too much leeway because they are unwilling to compromise their friendships for the good of the business and the rest of the staff. Restaurant and bar staffs tend to be close-knit, the lines between personal and business relationships get blurred. Although this is one of my favorite things about the industry, at the end of the day it’s a business and it needs to run as such. The wellbeing of the entire staff should always come before personal relationships.

I’ve seen these reasons playing a part to excuse all kinds of negative behaviors, anything from having a few drinks while on the clock to sexual harassment. This can happen at any restaurant, and it doesn’t help that most restaurants do not have an HR department to direct complaints formally, so even heinous offenses can fall through the cracks.

Sometimes the negative culture of your business can extend beyond the actual work. The service industry has a work hard, play hard mentality. Much of the industry is driven by alcohol, so it’s no surprise that alcohol is a major part of many of its employee’s lives. I have written about the tradition of shift drinks and I will say I am an advocate. It is great to have a beer after a busy shift and it’s a good way to let your employees know they are appreciated. This needs to be handled with care, there is a fine line that can be crossed from appreciating your staff’s hard work to promoting alcoholism. Owners and managers need to be mindful when using alcohol to deal with low morale. One of the most frustrating things I see is if an employee has a bad day because of something management could address, instead of talking to the employee and dealing with the problem, they will just buy the employee drinks. Although the gesture is often appreciated, this is no way to deal with problems in your business. Just like personal problems, you can’t just drink them away.

This also extends to enabling employees with substance abuse problems. Although everyone makes their own decisions, you should always be looking out for your coworkers. Recognize when someone’s had enough and don’t be afraid to cut them off. You can’t make anyone do anything, but you can try to help, especially if you are in a leadership role.

Every workplace has its problems, especially restaurants and bars. No business is perfect. No matter where you go in the industry you will find these problems. The point is, for the good of the people and the industry itself, you should always be aware of the problems in your workplace and try your best to fix them, particularly if you are part of the management team. As an employee, don’t be afraid to analyze your workplace and see if it is worth it to stay where you are. Restaurants can easily create Stockholm Syndrome regarding the money and the work. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize if your workplace has a toxic environment if you’re making good money, but you must be critical. At the end of the day, no amount of money is worth your mental health.