Of Red Hens & Teahouses: Update Your Employee Handbook Today

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Owners and operators, take heed—every decision you, your managers and your staff make will ultimately be inextricably tied to your brand. Some of these decisions are the standards of hospitality: how your guests are greeted, what happens once they’re seated, guest-staff interactions and engagement, etc.

While important, most of the time your interactions and transactions are standard fare. But with the reach of the Internet and popularity of online review sites, one misstep—perceived or real—can find your name and venue splattered across news sites. The days of the “all press is good press” mantra are long gone. Recent news stories prove that statement to be true.

Last week, I addressed the Red Hen Incident. I asked readers to consider a few questions, mostly focused around online review sites like Yelp and what, if any, responsibility falls on them to protect businesses whose listings are turned into political battlegrounds.

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Should reviewers be required to provide proof that they’ve actually visited or ordered takeout or delivery from a business they’re posting about before their “review” is visible? If it’s so easy for people with online access and a political agenda to excoriate a business, are review sites relevant anymore?

It Isn’t Over

Another incident involving a restaurant and politics made news this weekend. Like the Red Hen in Lexington, Virginia, and the Red Hen in Washington, D.C., another restaurant has found its listing “being monitored by Yelp's Support team for content related to media reports.”

Read this: The Red Hen Incident: Operating in the Age of Weaponized Online Reviews

Unlike the Red Hen in Lexington, however, this restaurant, the Teahouse in Stanley Park in Vancouver, Canada, hasn’t found its review count launched into the thousands. (At the time of publishing for this article, the number of reviews for the Red Hen in Lexington has dropped from over 15,000 to just over 13,000, but the rating has slipped from 1.5 stars to 1 star.)

What Happened in Vancouver?

Several news outlets have reported that a guest wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat entered the Teahouse in Vancouver. Darin Hodge, former manager of the restaurant, approached the person wearing the hat and gave him two choices: remove the cap or be refused service.

The man wearing the hat stood his ground, the manager told him he wouldn’t be served, and he left the restaurant. Subsequently, the manager was fired by the Sequoia Company of Restaurants, owners of Teahouse.

Eva Gates, vice president of operations and human resources for the Sequoia Company of Restaurants, gave Global News confirmation about Hodge’s termination.

“A gentleman came in wearing a hat that was a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat, and our manager went up to the gentleman and asked him to take off his hat, that he wouldn’t serve him with that hat on,” said Gates. “And the gentleman said that he had a right to wear that hat. And [the manager] refused to serve him if he wouldn’t take off his hat, and so the customer had to leave.”

Hodge was fired for violating the Sequoia Company’s philosophy of tolerance. According to the former manager—who had worked for the restaurant for 18 months—he has no regrets concerning his actions. You can read his statement here.

Why These Incidents Should Matter to You

The Red Hen Incident and the Teahouse Situation aren’t mirror images of one another. The owner of the Red Hen asked her staff how they would like her to proceed when Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her party entered the restaurant. A manager at the Teahouse took it upon himself to refuse service to a guest wearing what he considered to be an offensive article of clothing.

What both incidents have in common is that they occurred at restaurants, both were reported to have occurred due to moral convictions, and both became politically charged news pieces. Online review sites, social media channels and Internet forums have become political warzones. Supporters, detractors and trolls have attacked the restaurants, management, parties refused service, and political opponents for all manner of reasons.

The Red Hen is to remain closed until July 5. As Fox News, CNN and other outlets have reported, Red Hen owner Stephanie Wilkinson resigned her position as executive director of Main Street Lexington. This business group is dedicated to improving downtown Lexington, Virginia, and promoting its businesses. A restaurant called Red Hen in Washington, D.C., received “splash damage” from the rush to Yelp bomb the business that had 86ed Sanders. GoFundMe pages have popped up (some, of course, are just taking advantage of the situation) to raise funds to support Red Hen staff while the restaurant is closed and to hire security for when it reopens.

Your decisions and the decisions of your staff matter. Good or bad, those decisions and their impact can be easily and immediately amplified via social media and online reviews. Do you really want to count on a site like Yelp to handle an influx of malicious reviews? A flood of glowing reviews is suspicious and can be just as damaging to you, your brand and your venue. Do you think it’s a great idea to give a review site so much power over your business?

This industry isn’t easy; that has been true since its inception. Social media and online review sites don’t make things much simpler. You are accountable to your guests, your staff and their families, your community, and your own family. You must decide if you believe your business is the place for making moral stands or political statements. And you must make that decision understanding that you’re in the business of serving the public; do overt political positions have any place in this industry?

How to Proceed

It may seem outlandish to you as an owner, operator or manager, but due to the Red Hen Incident and Teahouse Situation you need to revisit your official rules and regulations. If you’re a sole proprietor, choose to update your employee handbook on your own or consult your managers. If you don’t have an employee handbook, fix that oversight immediately.

Read this: Employee Handbook Mistakes: Create a More Effective Manual

If you have partners, meet with them and decide as a group if the managers should be brought into the conversation. Managers reading this should be proactive and present the idea of updating the rules and regs with the owner or owners.

What are you going to do if a guest or guests walk into your establishment wearing an article of clothing with a political slogan or symbol on it? Ask that it be removed or covered up? Refuse service? Nothing?

What if a politician or a member of their staff comes into your bar, restaurant or nightclub? Are your managers expected to huddle with the staff to ask their opinion on serving or 86ing them? Will you implement a policy of refusing service to politicians and their staff if you oppose their political positions? Is a staff member permitted to refuse to serve them? Or are all employees expected to treat them like any other guest and provide excellent service?

Will you go as far as outlining your political and moral values in your employee handbook? Are you going to politicize your business? As an operator you can run your business as you see fit, but understand that actions have consequences. Can you accept that refusing service to someone may result in your business being attacked online, your venue receiving 1-star reviews, your staff suffering financially or leaving to work elsewhere, and your doors closing for good?

Read this: A Core Value Walks Into a Bar

When you update your handbook to address these questions with rules and regulations, ensure you have every employee read them, including your managers. Ask if they understand the rules. Require them to sign a statement that they have read the rules and regulations, and that they understand what is expected of them...including consequences for rule violations.

The Business Has Changed

It’s safe to say that most people don’t enter the service industry (or hospitality industry, if you prefer) to make political stands and statements. But it has become clear that this business is not free of the grip of politics, nor the massive fallout that can follow one seemingly simple decision. Sure, you have the right to refuse people service. However, you must do so within the confines of the law, and you must do so understanding all the possible consequences.

Had the owner of the Red Hen asked if there was a staff member who didn’t object to serving Sanders—and made it clear that retaliation for doing their job wouldn’t be tolerated—they would never have made headlines. The restaurant would be operating as usual. As the owner, Wilkinson could have donated the amount of Sanders’ check to an LGBTQIA charity, either anonymously, in her or the restaurant’s name, or even in the White house press secretary’s name if she felt so bold.

However, there’s a lot to be said for respecting your staff enough to head into your business, gather your staff, ask how they’d like you to proceed in a given situation, and act according to their wishes. It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback, particularly when you, your staff and your business weren’t involved in the incident. “She should have…,” “She could have…,” “I would have…” statements are easy to make after the fact. “I will…” statements are much more proactive and powerful.

Think about these two headline-grabbing, news-making restaurant stories and the attention they received. Consider what the venues faced via social media, online review sites, and news outlets. Decide how you and your staff will handle similar situations, be consistent, and remember two things: You’re in the service business, and you can’t please everyone.

Do you have policies in place to handle situations like the Red Hen Incident and Teahouse Situation? If not, are you planning to develop such policies and educate your staff? Let us know via our Facebook or Twitter channels.