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‘Service with a smile’ plus tipping leads to sexual harassment for majority of service employees

Two common practices in the U.S. restaurant industry — service with a smile and tipping — contribute to a culture of sexual harassment, according to new research from the University of Notre Dame.

“A perfect storm: Customer sexual harassment as a joint function of financial dependence and emotional labor” was recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology from Timothy Kundro, assistant professor of management and organization at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.

In the study, co-authored by Alicia Grandey and Vanessa Burke from Penn State University and Gordon Sayre from Emlyon Business School in France, more than 66 percent of restaurant employees reported facing some form of sexual harassment in the past six months.

Previous research has looked at the idea that customers can engage in sexual harassment. But this study is the first to examine why sexual harassment is so pervasive in the service industry itself. It’s also the first to empirically link tipping to sexual harassment. 

“Service employee dependence on tips and requirements for friendly displays lead customers to experience a heightened sense of power — which can lead them to engage in sexual harassment,” said Kundro, whose research examines when and why employees engage in dysfunctional behavior, specifically looking at ethics, discrimination and impression management. “We show it’s really the joint effects of customer tipping and requirements for positive gestures that drive sexual harassment. When either isn’t present, customers don’t feel the same sense of power.”

The team conducted two studies. In the first, they asked 92 full-time service employees to report the percentage of their income dependent on tips and the extent to which their organization requires them to maintain positive displays with customers. The researchers asked the service employees to report how much power they felt customers had and then asked the employees to report how frequently they experience sexual harassment. 

The team recruited 229 men for the second study to analyze the customer perspective. They manipulated the dependence on tips and the facial display of the waitress. The men then reported the extent to which they would feel power and would engage in sexual harassment behaviors.

“It’s really compelling, in my view,” Kundro said, “because we replicated this from both the perspective of the employee and the customer and our findings for each were the same — employees who rely on tips face more sexual harassment, but only when required to engage in ‘service with a smile.'”

The study suggests that service organizations can reduce customer power and sexual harassment by eliminating tipping dependence and/or requirements for “service with a smile.”

“You really can’t have both,” Kundro said. “Yet, organizations often do — which may explain why sexual harassment is so pervasive in the service industry. Our research shows that paying a fair wage or eliminating tipping practices can reduce the power differential between a service worker and an employee. Alternatively, organizations can also reduce or eliminate positive display requirements.”

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To learn more, visit the Journal of Applied Psychology website at https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fapl0000895.

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