Staff who rely on tips are more likely to be sexually harassed, study finds

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on Sep 10, 2021

Staff who rely on tips are more likely to be sexually harassed, study finds

Those who rely on tips, and who must be friendly at work, could be more likely to be subjected to sexual harassment

Research from the University of Notre Dame, Pennsylvania State University, and emlyon business school, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, has recently evaluated the experiences of employees who rely on tips for a living, discovering that those who have to provide ‘service with a smile’ are more likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace.

During the investigation, researchers conducted two studies – one from the perspective of the employees and one from the perspective of the customer.

In the first study of employees, the researchers asked questions about their financial dependence on tips, how much they were required to project a positive attitude towards customers, how much power they believed the customers had over them, and how often they had experienced sexual harassment from a customer in the previous six months. This study concluded that the employees who reported greater financial dependence on tips also reported more sexual harassment – but only when they were required to be friendly at all times.

In the second study, 229 men were invited to participate in an online experiment. They were assigned four different conditions: a waitress who appeared friendly and was dependent on tips, a waitress who was friendly and not dependent on tips, a waitress who was neutral and dependent on tips, and a waitress who was neutral and not dependent on tips. Following this, they then answered questions about the interaction.

Again, in the second study, the result echoed a similar pattern to the first, with men more likely to sexually harass those who were dependent on tips and expressed a friendly attitude.

What is sexual harassment?

According to Citizens Advice, sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature which:

  • Violates your dignity.
  • Makes you feel intimidated, degraded, or humiliated.
  • Creates a hostile or offensive environment.

It’s important to remember that you don’t need to have previously objected to someone's behaviour for it to be considered unwanted.

Sexual harassment can include:

  • Unwanted flirtatious or sexual comments.
  • Sexual jokes.
  • Physical behaviour, including unwelcome sexual advances, touching, and various forms of sexual assault.
  • Displaying pictures, photos, or drawings of a sexual nature.

Considering why this link appears, researchers believe that the reliance on tips and ‘smile with a service’ culture creates a power imbalance between the employee and the customer, which in turn increases the likelihood of sexual harassment.

“While high profiles cases in entertainment and politics have raised awareness about sexual harassment, far less attention has been paid to sexual harassment in customer service, where these behaviours are especially prevalent,” said Gordon Sayre, an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at emlyon business school. “We wanted to understand whether conditions unique to the service industry, like tips and emotional requirements, might be playing a role.

“Sexual harassment is all too common in customer service, and our results show that two conditions that permeate the industry — tips and ‘service with a smile’ expectations — play a key role in facilitating this inappropriate and harmful behaviour,” he continues. “Our hope is that the research will shine a light on the issue, while also encouraging organisations to take steps to better protect their employees.”

Pointing to ways that organisations can create a better workplace culture, the researchers suggest that they should first reduce dependence on customer tips by paying employees a living wage, and additionally, to relax the expectations to be friendly with customers, particularly if their behaviour is inappropriate.

To learn more about workplace sexual harassment, and what your options are if it has happened to you, visit

If you have experienced sexual harrasment and want to talk about it with a mental health professional, connect with a counsellor using Counselling Directory.

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