The Color Code of Conduct

Erin Wade was confident she ran a feminist business. As the co-founder and owner of Homeroom, a casual restaurant that now has three locations in California’s Bay Area, she prided herself on her company’s high percentage of women in leadership, its transparent workplace culture, and its progressive policies on everything from finances to conflict resolution. So when an incident of sexual harassment on the floor triggered an outpouring of stories from other staff who had experienced similarly transgressive behavior from the restaurant’s customers, it came as a profound shock. “I went home and started bawling,” Wade says. “I couldn’t believe this was happening right under my nose*.

That harsh realization eventually compelled Wade and the staff at Homeroom to take action. Six years and a lot of tinkering later, their Color Code of Conduct has not only effectively curbed sexual harassment in their own restaurant, but has been adopted by hundreds of other establishments in the US and elsewhere. Thanks to its elegant simplicity–and a key understanding about differences in perception—the system invented by a mac ‘n cheese restaurant in California is proving an effective response to one of the industry’s most entrenched problems.

And it is definitely a problem. The percentage of hospitality industry workers who have experienced sexual harassment on the job is astonishingly high: 34% in Australia, 50% in Denmark, 89% in the UK. In the US, where more sexual harassment claims are filed in the restaurant industry than in any other field, a full 90% of all women in the field and 70% of men have experienced harassment. And that is despite the fact that in many places, companies are required to provide anti-harassment training.

That was the case for Homeroom. As required by California State Law, Wade and her managers staff attended regular anti-harassment training sessions. But in 2017, after a man dining with his four children brazenly stuck his hand up a busser’s shirt, outraged women on the staff began coming forward with their own stories of mistreatment. *A lot of the harassment people were experiencing was not as egregious,” Wade says. “But there was a lot of low-level inappropriate behavior that they were just enduring. And, embarrassingly enough, even when they talked to management about it, they weren’t getting taken seriously.”

The Color Code of Conduct that they eventually devised removes that possibility. It divides unwanted customer behavior into three categories and assigns an automatic action to each. A yellow infraction serves as an alert–a server has detected a creepy vibe and can, at that point, request that a manager take over the table. An orange signals more comments with obliquely sexual connotations (like unwelcome compliments), and requires the manager to take over the table. Red denotes overtly sexual comments or unwanted touching and requires the manager to eject the customer. All a staff member has to do to trigger those actions is report the color: “Orange on table 8.”

The women at Homeroom didn’t arrive at that simple system overnight. In fact, their first attempt to address the harassment—a sensitivity training session—was an abject failure. “We had a lot of male managers at the time– amazing men, these really feminist guys who wanted to get it,” Wade says. “But the sensitivity session was awful and just created more division. The women ended up in tears describing the terrible situations they had been in, and all the men just looked like deer in the headlights.”

Nevertheless, that failure led the group to a critical realization: they needed a response that didn’t rely on men making judgment calls about women’s stories. “It was very clear that if we couldn’t get the awesome men that work at Homeroom to react differently, we weren’t going to get any men to react differently,” Wade says. “So we developed a system where it doesn’t really matter if you see the situation differently, that doesn´t require empathy. A system in which, if you’re in a management position, there’s just this thing you automatically have to do.”

One incident in particular made it clear why that kind of automatic response was necessary. One night at the restaurant, a group of what Wade describes as “rowdy” male diners were arguing over who would pay the bill. One of them decided to resolve the question by giving the server his credit card. But instead of handing it to her, he dropped the card directly into her apron pocket, grazing her groin with his hand in the process. The server reported the incident to her manager as a red, but the manager, who was male, balked at asking the customer to leave because the touching, in his mind, was unintentional. When the situation ended up on Wade’s desk, it clarified what would become one of the core principles of Homeroom’s system: impact over intention. “Ultimately, whether that guy did it on purpose or it was an accident is pretty irrelevant,” Wade says. “The impact was the same: he touched one of our servers in their private area. We saw that we need to teach people to manage for impact and not for intent.”

It’s not hard to imagine some employees might chafe against that kind of bright line. But Wade says there has been little to no resistance to the policy among the staff, and in fact, believes that part of the key to the code’s success is that it makes everyone’s life easier. “Yeah, sexual harassment is a really complicated subject. But I think most staff members don’t want to worry about whether they should report something or not, “ Wade explains. “For employees, knowing they just say a word and that an action will be taken makes them feel safe, and I think for managers, it relieves them from having to make hard judgment calls on something that might not seem threatening based on their own experiences.”

It also helped that the organization took steps to ensure greater gender and racial diversity at all levels. As a woman-owned business, Homeroom was already pretty diverse at the time of the inciting incident, but although the restaurant’s highest supervisors were all women, its shift managers were all men. And that, Wade recognizes now, may have contributed to the reluctance that some of her staff felt about coming forward with their own experiences of harassment. “If you don’t have a fairly diverse leadership team at every level,” she says, “people aren’t going to feel as comfortable bringing this up. I think we’ve been able to refine the system so much over time because women see other women leaders that they could feel comfortable talking to, or because people of color see other people of color in leadership.”

Almost 7 years on from when they first started working on it, Homeroom teaches the color code system to all new employees and has seen it dramatically reduce the frequency of harassment incidents. “We almost don’t have any reds anymore,” Wade says. “It just stops the power dynamic from escalating.” The system has also been adopted by a wide array of restaurants and bars, from Border Grill in Santa Monica to Existing Conditions in New York City, to Nobelhart and Schmutzig in Berlin.

For all its success, the color code does not address that other key source of sexual harassment in the industry: fellow staff. Even for Homeroom, that aspect is tougher to address. “ I wish I could tell you it’s never been an issue for us, but that’s not true,” Wade says. Still, she is confident that the system has at least given her team a common language for discussing what sexual harassment is, regardless of source. By way of example, she tells the story of a high-ranking male manager who had a habit of complimenting people on their appearance until one of the staff complained. “He had complimented her on her smile, and she said,‘that’s an orange. If it was a customer, I’d be reporting it.”

Wade talked to the manager about how many women see those kinds of compliments as come-ons. “I also said that more than anything, you’re their boss. They don’t want to know that you like their smile or their shirt. They want to know what you think about their work.” The manager, who, she says, didn’t realize that he was making his employees uncomfortable, was open to and grateful for the lesson–in part, Wade says, because the restaurant already had a framework in place for discussing these issues.

“It comes back to that intent versus impact. If I had gone to him and said, ‘I can’t believe you did this awful thing, you’re out of here,’ he would probably have gotten very defensive and it wouldn’t have had any real impact. But if I can say,’ I think you’re a caring person who isn’t intending to make someone uncomfortable, but your intent really doesn’t matter, because it’s having this impact,’ it gives him a chance to understand someone else’s perspective. And to change.”

And for Wade, who is at work on a book about leadership, change is the goal. “How do we usher in the next generation of companies that the world needs to see? One in ten Americans works in restaurants. If they looked different, just think how much else would change.”

Illustration by Jakob Tolstrup.

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