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Minding Your Business

Minding Your Business

Keeping politics off the menu when employees and guests interact

A recent string of politically charged incidents involving restaurant employees and high-profile guests connected to the current administration has operators giving serious thought to what they’d do in a similar situation. To get some perspective, we asked two experienced restaurant consultants how to keep the politics out of the dining room—and what to do if a conflict occurs.

It begins with a clear policy that reflects the restaurant’s values, according to Kathleen Kenehan Henson, founder and CEO of Agency H5, a Chicago-based communications agency.

“Civility should always be at the forefront of service businesses,” Henson says. “You have to have well-established and communicated policies on appropriate conduct for patrons as well as employees, which will protect you as a restaurant owner.”

While policies can vary, most share a commitment to providing outstanding service while avoiding any hot-button topics, and certainly any aggressive and confrontational behavior. If an incident between an employee and guest happens anyway, Henson advises addressing it swiftly and decisively.

“You have to own it when it happens and make sure you don’t hide, because that creates speculation and a lack of transparency,” she explains. “And you’ve got to take action and hold the employee accountable for violating the policy.”

As with all service matters, staying connected is key.

“Make sure you’re evaluating whether those policies are working and make adjustments,” Henson says. “Have a town hall with your staff and say, ‘Listen, I know a lot of you have different belief systems, but we do not stand for not treating everyone with dignity, respect and kindness.’”

It helps to recognize that people often visit restaurants to escape the stresses of the day, says Doug Roth, founder and president of Playground Hospitality, a restaurant consulting company in Chicago.

“A restaurant is a sanctuary, because you want to be transported somewhere else and leave your problems at the door,” Roth explains. “In that context, whatever our views are, we are professionals, so we rise above the political atmosphere.”

Roth agrees that having a clear policy is crucial in setting expectations. That may even include giving employees the right to decline to serve a certain customer who makes them uncomfortable, sidestepping potential problems.

“It’s all about the culture,” Roth says. “We need to treat the people we work with the same respect we treat our guests.”

And when a conflict between an employee and a guest arises, step in quickly.

“You clearly apologize,” he explains. “There’s two sides to a story, but you don’t hash it out with the guest and employee at that point. Just understand what the guest is communicating to you and respond to it.”