“Are you going to get hit on? Yeah, but try to ignore it. If something really bad happens, let me know.”
The above words are a response from a former boss when I asked him about how to best deal with sexual harassment in the work place. While I’ll admit, not every boss is the most eloquent when it comes to discussing particular workplace policies or sexual harassment. Let’s face it; some bosses are better at leading than others, some have a way of commanding respect without demanding it and some are inept when it comes to advocating for their employees.
I’ve had managers on both sides of the spectrum. In the case detailed above and as a new employee I wondered if my employer actually had my back. Through admissions like this, they attempted to absolve themselves of duty to change workplace culture. Getting hit on wasn’t the worst thing to happen, right? It’s uncomfortable, it can be hurtful and it can be dangerous, but my concerns were still worthy of acknowledgement. After sharing the story, one of my friends responded with a shocked face: “They basically told you right off the block that this was the way it was going to be. There were so many ways they could have made you feel more safe.”
And my friend was right. I deserved better. Bad managers acknowledge these things happen without helping solve them. Mediocre managers attempt to rectify the situation. Great managers can often stop intimidation from happening by setting up a culture where there is no home for workplace violence and intimidation. Excellent managers help inspire other employees to go out and become the next managers or workers or community members who advocate for safety, mutual respect and dignity.
I sat down and chatted with one of those excellent bosses. I have known Jeff Hammerstad for five years. As a manager for thirteen years and employee of the food and beverage industry for twenty-three, Jeff has seen a lot. We first met when I was a twenty-year-old college student and working part-time as a server. As my boss, I had an upfront view to Jeff’s management style, integrity and passion for excellence. Because of him, I have a blueprint for building this safe work environment. He’s always my default when I think of what it takes to be a great leader.
Valerie: “What’s your management style like?”
Jeff: “I joke that I’m firm but fair. You have to hold people accountable, especially if you’re talking about harassment in the workplace. I’ve seen it from a guests standpoint, I’ve seen it as a coworker, I’ve seen it from other managers.”
Valerie: “Tell me a little more about that…”
Jeff: “At my first management job, I saw things happening and I bit my tongue. I just sat there and I thought I’m not the General Manager; I’m just the Assistant Manager. I’m just another worker, what am I going to do? It took me a while before I finally blew the whistle. There are so many people out there who say: “oh it doesn’t affect me. That’s not my place, it’s not my situation.’ I had to build my character up: where it is my place, it is my problem. If you’re going to allow this stuff to happen you aren’t leading.”
Valerie: “What role does the manager play in hiring to make the environment inclusive but also keeping in mind maybe the culture isn’t the most hospitable for certain demographics of employees?”
Jeff: “It’s your job as a manager to make sure that the culture doesn’t get there. It’s managing the culture. The stereotypical kitchen is one of vulgar language. The reason why that stereotype exists is because managers allow that to happen.”
Valerie: “Describe what is was like for you when you were caught in situations as a manager when you didn’t know what to do.”
Jeff: “There’s the 30,000 foot rule. As a manager, you’re at the top of the chain and the staff below. So before you dig down deep, you have to look at it from 30,000 feet---the big picture. What’s going on in the situation? Before you start digging into it, look at the situation and culture you’ve created. Are you allowing it to happen? Before I even look at it on an individual basis I need to first look at it from 30,000 feet than as an employee at 5,000 feet and then at the ground level. You have to ask yourself is this something I’m allowing to happen or is it an isolated incident?”
Valerie: “What do you think stops managers from taking that perspective?”
Jeff: “90% of managers think that they aren’t doing anything wrong.”
Valerie: “Ego. Do you also think it has to do with accountability, because once they admit it’s a problem, they have to take power to change it?”
Jeff: “It’s easier to say, this isn’t happening in my job. They aren’t looking at it from the bigger picture. You have to be constantly aware of it.”
Valerie: “The line can blur between being a coworker and a friend. How does that impact those tough conversations?”
Jeff: “Well, I’ve had that experience when I’ve been genuinely friends with my employees and I’ve had to have that tough conversation. And it becomes a million times more difficult because you have to step out of the friendship role and into the boss role. It was one of those things where it’s tough but you also have to be blunt with them.”
Valerie: “How do you create a culture in the workplace where your employees feel safe coming to you with their concerns?”
Jeff: “Being upfront and honest. Letting them know that they can come to you, the open door policy.”
Valerie: “---You verbalize that---“
Jeff: “Absolutely. In every single one of my orientations with a new employee, I tell them if they feel uncomfortable about anything come talk to me. If they don’t feel comfortable talking to me, they need to talk to someone about it. If you think that I’m the issue, find someone above me to talk to. I don’t ever want someone to feel uncomfortable or feel unsafe in the workplace. I want to create a culture where people can come to work and be safe and have fun.”
Valerie: “Have there been instances where you’ve been worried about an employee’s safety? How do you respond?”
Jeff: “Yes, I’ve had stalkers come to work. I’ve had guests ask private information about our employees. You have to create that environment to let the staff know that they’re safe. I’ve walked servers to their cars; I’ve overstaffed to make sure that our employees are safe late at night. I’ve kicked people out of restaurants. I refuse to allow it to happen.”
Valerie: “What advice would you give employees who aren’t sure if they should go to their manager about harassment or intimidation?”
Jeff: “Don’t hesitate. If they’re uncomfortable going to their direct supervisor, they need to go to their next person in the chain of command. You’re never going to get good people to work for you if you allow harassment to happen. They lost a valuable asset in their employee…they lost a good person who could have done amazing work for them.”
Valerie: “Any thing else you’d like to add?”
Jeff: “It’s an ever changing thing, business. If you don’t create the right environment for people: safe, positive---there is another restaurant down the street and you can lose a really great work member to the next restaurant, simply because of the environment you’re creating. If you allow things to happen and turn a blind eye, you’re going to lose really great staff.”
“Create that safe work environment for people, it’s huge.”
The management styles between my two former managers couldn’t have been any more different. While one manager openly admitted the environment would be hostile but seemed resigned to the fact and the other worked every day to create a culture of respect. “Culture” was a term that Jeff used many times over the course of our conversation. Merriam Webster defines “culture” as “the beliefs, customs, etc. of a particular group” or “a way of thinking, behaving or working that exists in a place or organization.” Jeff’s use of the term was a fissure of both definitions: it was a set of beliefs but also a way of living.
What was most striking about our conversation was the degree to which Jeff actively works to change work culture for the better. He took the role as a leader seriously, including claiming responsibility for his employees’ safety and respect. That’s why he leads, like a boss.