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Sexual claims common in pressure-cooker restaurant world

By Eve Tahmincioglu

More than a decade ago, Herman Cain headed the nation’s top lobbying group for the restaurant industry, an industry long known as having a sexual harassment problem.

Now Cain himself is accused of having sexually harassed two women during his tenure. The Republican presidential candidate and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza says he was falsely accused of sexual harassment while at the National Restaurant Association. But the claims shed light on the susceptibility of the food services industry to cases of -- and allegations of -- inappropriate sexual behavior.

Of more than 400 discrimination suits and settlements reported by the federal government so far this year, 75 involved sexual harassment, and 26, or 37 percent, involved the food service industry, according to an msnbc.com review of data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“It’s a loosie-goosie, collegial environment in the food service industry, and that lends itself to sexual harassment,” said Beth Schroeder, an attorney with a focus on the restaurant industry for Silver Freedman in Los Angeles. The work force, she pointed out, is often transient, manager and employees often party together after work, and the industry is “still very, very male.”

The personality types the industry attracts may also be contributing to the problem.

“The restaurant industry is especially susceptible to incidents of sexual harassing behaviors due to certain social characteristics,” according to “Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry,” a 2002 study by hospitality professors from the University of Southwestern Louisiana.

“The most obvious is that of restaurants attracting or recruiting employees with ‘outgoing personalities,’” the report said.

The authors asked employees at Louisiana restaurants whether they had experienced sexual harassment. About 30 percent of  employees and 42 percent of female employees said they had.

You don’t have to look any further than your TV set to see the industry's penchant for hostile work environments, thanks to popular food shows such as "Hell’s Kitchen," where hard-nosed British chef Gordon Ramsay spends most of his time cursing young aspiring chefs.

In the real world, many workers, especially women, say they’ve experienced much worse.

A federal lawsuit filed by four women against Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse alleges that lewd behavior is rampant at the upscale restaurant chain and claims that women were denied equal advancement and pay.

According to the suit, which was recently allowed to add class-action claims, female employees “are frequently subjected to sexually hostile and demeaning treatment," including "unwelcome sexually charged ‘jokes’ and commentary, name-calling and physical touching. Senior management has both participated in creating this environment and been aware of many instances of it.”

On one occasion a former male vice president was overheard instructing his employees to hire some “T&A” (referring to a woman’s body parts) to work as bartenders, the suit charges.

Cheryl Henry, senior vice president and chief branding officer at Ruth’s Chris, said that she could not comment on pending litigation but that the company “does not tolerate discrimination of any kind in our family of restaurants."

Jonathan Hyman, an employment attorney with Kohrman Jackson & Krantz in Cleveland, said one could argue that restaurant workers generally know what they’re getting into in the high-pressure, male-dominated industry. He cited the "skimpy outfits" of Hooters and described Ruth's Chris as "a male-dominated, cigar kind of place.”

“Harassment is by definition unwelcome,” he noted.

But if women “are in on the joke and laughing” within a sexually charged environment, “it’s hard to say what’s unwelcome," he said.

Yet even if an industry may be more susceptible to overt sexual behavior, that doesn’t mean employers get a pass.

“The law is the law, and no employee, regardless of their gender, should have to endure sexual harassment at work,” said Christine Nazer, a spokeswoman for the EEOC.

“Sexual harassment can occur in any work environment, from the fields to the factory floor to the boardroom,” she said. “While most harassment of women is characterized by explicit sexual touching and remarks, harassment based on sex can also take the form of hostility toward the presence of women in the workplace.”

It’s difficult for women, in particular, to know how to navigate different company cultures and advance their careers. The issue has grown as more women have joined the work force in recent decades.

“This is a real problem for everybody, males as well as females, as to what the new rules of behavior are given that you’re likely to have as many men as women,” said Catherine Hakim, author of “Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom.”

“Some people [are] going to be incredibly uptight, as other people would see it, and have strict views on what’s acceptable and what isn’t, and others have more relaxed views,” she said. “There’s always going to be some friction. That’s something that has to be worked out.”

Indeed, one of the plaintiffs in the Ruth's Chris case felt she ended up in a Catch-22 situation. Early in her career, Katharine Bush complained about what she deemed to be inappropriate sexual behavior on the part of a chef at one of the restaurants, and a general manager basically told her: “You are a big girl.”

Bush, who started out as a bookkeeper and was eventually promoted to regional sales manager but claims she was passed over for more senior positions because of her gender, said she later was fired for using the word “prick” in an e-mail.

“Granted, it wasn’t the best choice of words, but it did not warrant the termination because men committed and said worse things on many occasions,” she said.

Navigating sexuality in the workplace is complicated, Hakim said, especially when there are not always clear lines on what is  acceptable.

It’s unclear what happened in Cain’s case. On Monday, he called the allegations a “witch hunt,” saying he has “never sexually harassed anyone.” 

The big question that may now need to be asked of Cain, and of many employees and managers throughout the workplace, may be: What exactly constitutes sexual harassment?

Christina Pingaro contributed to this report.

Related: Cain complains of 'witch hunt,' denies harassment