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It’s 1 o’clock in the morning. The lights of the bar are dimmed and the black lights wash everything in a purple glow.
The DJ is playing a mash-up of “Come on Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners and some current rap song and people’s conversations blend into the pounding beat.
I smile as they walk in; a group of men in their 50s, continuing the party from some work event. They’re slurring, overconfident and loud, but customer service always comes first.
I lead them over to their table, making polite conversation on the way. I keep my smile, keep my cheery tone, until one of the men grabs my waist and slides his hand up just underneath my sweater. My smile is gone.
I tense up, immediately pulling away when one of his friends says exactly what I’m thinking.
“Not cool, man.”
And no, it wasn’t cool at all.
Working in customer service — in a bar in particular — I see this stuff happen to others and have this stuff happen to me all the time. It almost seems like a routine. I expect it to happen, I ignore it and I move on. The customer is always right and service comes first.
And remember — never, ever forget to smile.
It can start to feel like a balancing act. I can feel a customer getting too close, hear them start to say inappropriate comments to me, but I’m not sure when I should stop it. Sure, I’m uncomfortable, but isn’t that just part of the job? And they haven’t done anything too bad yet, so I should just keep going until they cross that line, right?
But I’m tired of being made uncomfortable as a hazard of the job. It feels as if I’m cornered and there’s no way to stop it, except to just wait it out. My job at the bar makes it so that I cannot easily leave a situation where someone is being overly persistent and aggressive, and it feels like some customers may take advantage of that fact. Alcohol definitely doesn’t help the situation either.
I feel the urge to go to my manager, or security to ask for help. Their presence nearby would dissuade the customer from being too pushy and too close. I know that either of them would help me if I told them I felt unsafe, but the thought comes into my head that maybe I’m being too sensitive. I signed up for this, so I have to be able to handle it on my own, right?
But the more time I spend in the service industry, the more I’ve come to realize that isn’t acceptable.
One night, I led a man over to a table and was answering a question he asked me. In the dark bar, the music pounding, my back was against the wall when he put himself between me and the exit. It went from inappropriate comments and following way too close to me to actually preventing me from leaving.
That’s when I realized that it can cross a line very quickly and I should have every right to stop it before it does.
Protecting myself comes before customer service and before the tips I might make.
It’s not in the job description to endure harassment and to be made to feel like I don’t have a way out. But it’s on me to protect myself. It’s on me to stand up for myself. And it’s on me recognize that my safely is more important than my job.
But it’s also on others to recognize their behaviour and understand that someone is simply doing their job. It does not give them the right to be pushy and cross boundaries.
I’ll smile, I’ll make small talk and I’ll be as friendly as I can be.
But I will also protect myself.