Ken Friedman is the latest industry boldface name to face accusations of inappropriate and abusive behavior, and has stepped away from his job as a result. As these stories continue to come to light, we must work to identify the underlying problems to repair the damage and move forward.
— Kristen Hawley
Restaurateur Ken Friedman created a hostile workplace that fostered a culture of sexual harassment, The New York Times’ Julia Moskin and Kim Severson reported on Tuesday.
Friedman is the business partner of chef April Bloomfield at The Spotted Pig, The John Dory Oyster Bar, The Breslin Bar & Dining Room, and Salvation Taco in New York; Tosca Cafe in San Francisco; and the newly opened Hearth and Hound in Los Angeles. The James Beard Foundation named Friedman restaurateur of the year in 2016.
This story is not political by nature, but it is by association. The restaurant industry is just the latest under the spotlight of sexual harassment accusations; the Friedman piece is the second major news item this week following revelations about Mario Batali on Monday. Additionally this week, former workers sued McCormick & Schmick’s alleging abusive behavior in the kitchen.
Several key excerpts from The New York Times story outline some of the fundamental problems behind the alleged events — problems that are undoubtedly applicable to other restaurants. These are problems of both the legal and human relations variety, some ingrained into the restaurant industry for decades. Below, we call out specific excerpts, along with perspective from a legal expert with a specialty in the industry.
In a response to questions from The New York Times on Monday, Mr. Friedman said his personal and professional lives are intertwined with his restaurants and staff. (His wife is a former host at the Spotted Pig.) “Some incidents were not as described, but context and content are not today’s discussion,” he said. “I apologize now publicly for my actions.”
Work is life, life is work. Employees and founders are tied to their work and their businesses, and in a culture that celebrates doing what you love as viable employment, lines often get blurred. “It is essential that the line be clear and very distinct. When you are the principal or owner there is personal liability under the law for sexual harassment,” Carolyn Richmond, partner at Fox Rothschild and chair of the firm’s Hospitality Practice Group, told Skift Table. (Richmond is not involved in the Friedman case and is quoted here solely as an expert in the field.)
“In addition, while the temptation is incredibly strong, restaurant owners simply should not socialize in their own establishments,” she said.
“We are not people who can live in cubicles,” said [former wine director] Carla Rza Betts…. “There is a grab-ass, superfun late-night culture — I love that part of the industry. But there is a difference between fun and sexualized camaraderie and predation. When you are made to feel unsafe or dirty or embarrassed, that is a different thing.”
Nearly every industry talks about the importance of culture fit, from tech to hospitality. Late nights, alcohol, parties, and associated vices are part of the business. But that doesn’t mean workers should be any less protected or respected. Culture fit involves the employee understanding and feeling comfortable within the bounds of his or her job; it does not involve mandatory subjection to questionable, uncomfortable, or law-breaking behavior.
“There is also no time-clock, your liability and risk is 24/7 and a ‘boss’ does not lose the risk simply because it may be 4 a.m. and you are hanging out with a subordinate employee in a bar or in a hotel room—you remain the employer all the time. Like it or not, you can be friendly with your staff, but under the law you should not be friends with your staff,” said Richmond.
Employees were told to bring sexual harassment claims directly to restaurant managers. But the managers interviewed by The Times said that they were often promoted because they were close to Mr. Friedman, so that rarely happened. Several employees said that when they did report problems, managers brushed them off or confided that they themselves were too afraid of Mr. Friedman’s verbal abuse to take action.
The Times piece also quotes the restaurant group’s head of HR, saying, “All employees are encouraged to report any concerns about the workplace, and I am saddened to learn some hesitated or chose to not do so.” In this case, it seems underlying culture and smaller day-to-day actions added up to a much larger problem.
Human resources is indeed intended to protect workers. “An owner should want to build a corporate structure that successfully solves problems within, keeps employees happy, keeps turnover low and has a positive work environment,” said Richmond. “When an employer fails and an employee can’t turn to someone within the organization, he or she should reach out to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, or the various state and local human rights organizations who will all take a complaint and conduct an investigation where warranted.”
[Former employee Jessica Brown] filed a complaint with the state’s Human Rights Division; the agency found that because the Breslin was indeed reducing its staff at the time, her firing was not a violation — but that Mr. Friedman’s discriminatory comments about her pregnancy could be investigated as a violation. For legal and financial reasons, Ms. Brown chose to not pursue the case further but remains convinced that it was her pregnancy that triggered the firing. “The sex factor is important to Ken,” she said. “Having a pregnant woman on the floor is not sexy.”
Here’s another scenario that targets women only: pregnancy. The issue here is servers as sex objects, likely masquerading as culture fit. “Culture in any sector is a very broad terms—it is the warm and fuzzy stuff in business that it is harder to define: attitudes, experiences, beliefs, practices that are generally acquired through social learning and often set from the top of an organization,” said Richmond. “Culture does not come from written policy or org charts. From an organizational behavior and sociology perspective, ‘organizational fit’ is very important and can help move any business in the right direction. However, taken to the extreme, cultural fit can be pretext for unlawful discrimination that often develops from a particular hiring strategy and manifests in turnover patterns.”
Several other employees say they also brought their complaints and concerns about Mr. Friedman to Ms. Bloomfield. “Her response was always the same.” Ms. Nelson said. “‘That’s who he is. Get used to it. Or go work for someone else.’
“I went to April directly multiple times about Ken’s inappropriate and abusive behavior, because among other problems, it generated huge turnover among the staff,” said Natalie Freihon, a former food and beverage director for the group’s ventures at the Ace Hotel New York, including the Breslin and the John Dory. “She really didn’t want the turnover to continue. But she completely backed off from getting involved with the behavior.”
One theme emerging from many of these media reports: many industry insiders are not surprised by the revelations, leading to larger conversations about complicity. In her statement to the Times, Bloomfield said, “In the two matters that were brought to my attention over the years, I immediately referred both to outside labor counsel and they were addressed internally. I have spoken to Ken about professional boundaries and relied on him to uphold our policies.”