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Food for thought: Workplace violence in agribusiness

ASU business professor on how companies can work toward eliminating sexual harassment and other forms of violence

A chef stirs a pan in a restaurant kitchen
January 02, 2018

On the heels of revelations about some of Hollywood’s most notorious sex scandals come similar exposés that bring to light how pervasive sexual harassment is across many industries. One important industry is agribusiness, particularly the restaurant business.

A recent investigation published by the New Orleans Times-Picayune revealed allegations from more than two dozen female employees of the Besh Restaurant Group who stated that the company fostered a culture of sexual abuse. When the story went public, the company’s founder and co-owner, celebrity chef John Besh — himself accused of sexual harassment by one employee — immediately stepped down.

Another article published recently by The Boston Globe examined sexual harassment in the Boston restaurant scene, noting its deep presence even in some of the city’s finest, most upscale restaurants. A suit filed by a former employee of L’Espalier, for example, alleged that the restaurant’s chef de cuisine assaulted her. According to the article, when the employee rejected his advances, he reportedly lost his temper and screamed at her and other employees. An attorney representing the worker was quoted in the story as stating that the restaurant industry is “one of the biggest offenders,” with sexual harassment allegations from servers and hosts, culinary students, bartenders and even coat-check staff — and most are female.

Offenders also run the gamut in terms of hierarchy, from co-workers to managers and even VIP customers. Instead of receiving support from management, those who report these incidents are often victimized yet again when they become targets of retaliation.

A menu of violence

“It’s far more widespread than anyone wants to talk about or admit,” said David Van Fleet, a professor in the Morrison School of Agribusiness at Arizona State University. “Given all the national attention on sexual harassment lately, I would suspect it would occur in other areas of the food industry, such as fast-food restaurants where there are a fair number of female employees.”

Van Fleet has devoted the better part of his career to studying workplace violence in agribusiness — industries and occupations that involve the four “F’s”: food, fiber, forest and (bio)fuel.

In his 2017 paper, “Human capital, workplace violence, and human resource management in agribusiness: Review and recommendations,” published in the Journal of Agribusiness, Van Fleet identifies different types of workplace violence in agribusiness and how companies can address them through human resource management strategies.

In the paper, Van Fleet describes sexual harassment as “telling off-color jokes, using vulgar language, obscene gestures, unwanted sexual demands, inappropriate touching and physically violent forms including rape, assault and homicide.”

In agribusiness, his research affirms, violence often includes sexual harassment by managers and co-workers. This is attributable to the large number of female and migrant workers in agribusiness industries — which include meatpacking, farming, food service and grocery retail — coupled with their level of education.

An earlier survey of women in Iowa meatpacking plants found that 84 percent experienced sexual harassment at work, but 91 percent of those women did not report it, arguably for fear of losing their jobs or of being deported.

In addition to women being at risk, Van Fleet adds that 16- to 24-year-olds — both male and female — are at the greatest risk for sexual harassment.

Aggression on a platter

Another all-too-common form of workplace violence is bullying. Ever seen a manager yelling at a worker in the grocery aisle right in front of customers and other employees? This, Van Fleet said, is by definition bullying.

“If it’s done privately, it could be considered a very aggressive form of management,” he explained. “But if it occurs in front of other employees or customers, it’s bullying or harassment, and it shouldn’t be permitted.”

When someone snaps in extreme violence, it’s usually something that has been building over time, Van Fleet said, calling it the “violence volcano”— also the title of one of two books he has written on the subject with his wife, Ella Van Fleet. In addition, he believes workplace violence is a function of three forces: what’s happening in the external environment, an individual’s propensity toward aggression, and the organization’s culture and tolerance for it.

“Some people are very passive and quiet even if they are subjected to harassment,” he said. “Others will take a swing at you if you look at them cross-eyed.”

Add to that the uncertainty of what’s going on in today’s world — unemployment and health-care challenges, as well as companies that turn a blind eye toward harassment incidents — these types of influences all contribute to violence in the workplace.

A recipe for change

How can an organization work toward eliminating sexual harassment and other forms of workplace violence?

First, they need to look inward. While many organizations have human resources policies in place, they are often quite general and non-specific to the company’s unique culture. Also, even if there is a policy in place meant to protect employees, many companies don’t have corresponding systems to proactively identify whether workplace violence is actually occurring.

“The recent article about sexual harassment in Boston restaurants clearly points to the need for restaurant owners to conduct anonymous surveys to their employees to locate and remove harassers,” Van Fleet said. “It would seem to me that the company would want to know about it so they could take action.”

In reality, many companies are reticent to engage in these surveys, even though they are anonymous.

“The agribusiness industry is enormous, and yet very little research has been done,” Van Fleet explained. “That’s one of my frustrations: I’ve been trying to contact grocers and fast-food restaurants to get them to survey their employees, all anonymously. They are gun-shy. They don’t want to have anything to do with it.”

For those who do, the data can change the course of the company’s future. It can be used to inform company-specific training programs that, Van Fleet believes, would be much more effective in reducing workplace violence than general human resources training because it is focused on a company’s individual needs.

Likewise, providing a safe, clear path for employees to file complaints would likely encourage more employees to step forward. And this policy, too, should be unique to each company and not include only general human resources laws and policies.

The Besh Group learned this lesson the hard way, and a little too late. In a statement, Raymond Landry, the company’s general counsel, said: “While we’ve had a complaint procedure in place that complies with all existing laws, we now recognize that, as a practical matter, we need to do more than what the law requires and we have revamped our training, education, and procedures accordingly.”

Human capital is critical — possibly the most valuable resource in agribusiness industries, according to Van Fleet.

“The costs and consequences of workplace violence must be reduced,” he said.

Serving up safe, healthy work environments

Here’s what agribusinesses can do to mitigate workplace violence now, according to Van Fleet: 

• recruit selectively, and provide training and reward systems to keep stress at manageable levels

• establish policies to develop a company culture that reduces the propensity for violence

• improve communication and assure fair performance evaluations to reduce feelings of distrust or resentment

• ensure the safety and security of personnel and equipment, including protection from violence

• train managers and employees in positive work behavior, and clearly define how the company defines harassment, bullying and sexual harassment

• implement diversity training to minimize conflicts related to diversity

• provide personal development opportunities through which employees can learn and improve their positions in their company and community

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