Admitting to Mistakes, USBG Overhauls Policy in the #MeToo Age

A case that took nearly 3 years to come to investigation sparked an urgent need for reform.
photo by Didriks via flickr.com

Moving to a new city without a job in place is an act of bravery, especially when that city is New York. For many bartenders, this brave move to the Big Apple is seen as the best way to make a mark in the cocktail industry, with opportunities to grow a career at some of the most prestigious bars in the world. One of the ways bartenders can network to find a good gig is to join the USBG (United States Bartenders Guild), and the NY chapter is known to be one of the most important and influential in the organization. Aside from finding a place to crash, one of the first things new bartenders do when they move to NYC is join USBGNY and attend a meeting. Not only does membership provide opportunities to meet other bartenders and beverage industry professionals at monthly meetings, the organization has exclusive access to prestigious cocktail competitions with handsome prizes and valuable career opportunities, educational seminars, and works as a sort of unofficial union to help with important aspects of bartending lifestyle such as networking for housing and apartment shares, as well as information on finding healthcare.

Unfortunately, for some female bartenders, USBGNY became a place they no longer felt physically safe. What follows is the story of a high profile member who allegedly displayed a pattern of sexually predatory behavior over several years, and because the Guild didn’t have the necessary tools to handle the situation at their disposal, things escalated way out of control. Despite what took place, the Guild is still a valuable asset to the industry and has worked to overhaul its practices in regard to sexual discrimination and abuse in the wake of the #MeToo movement and since these incidents took place. This is a story about what not to do if this situation occurs in the hospitality industry, or really, any professional environment, and how to build a safer trust in work related environments.

Note: names have been changed for legal purposes and to protect the victims.

Tarnishing hopes of a fresh start

Laura moved to New York in 2011 and joined USBGNY. She quickly met Steve, an industry veteran who told her he had extensive connections in the bar world, and offered to help her find meaningful employment. It turns out she was finding them without his assistance, and was too busy working to meet in person during the times he requested to have a private dinner or drink together. His texts to her became increasingly agitated and frequent, then they became lewd, abusive and threatening, calling her a “slut” and worse if she didn’t respond to him. She requested that he stop, both via text and in person. If he did stop, she says the texts would pick up again days later. At certain intervals he would threaten her. If they didn’t meet, he was going to “black ball” her all over town and make it difficult to find work. This alleged harassment continued for nearly two years on and off until he either grew tired of unanswered texts or moved on to someone else. Because it turns out she was not the only person he was doing this to.

A dangerous pattern

For most people in the business, bartending is a livelihood. It keeps the rent paid, food on the table and the lights on. Unless a bartender is working at a prestigious union job with benefits, most bartenders work with scant, if any, savings. So a threat to job security, no matter the circumstances, is to be taken very seriously. With a very real fear of retaliation, it took Laura nearly three years to find the courage to bring the matter to the attention of Sarah, a high ranking USBGNY council member. While initial conversations seemed to suggest that the situation was being handled with concern, and that Laura was “brave” for sharing her story, Steve remained in the chapter. At this time there was no investigation conducted.

It’s a tricky situation. Years ago, the language and resources to handle such a case was not readily available. Sarah, with no formal training in such matters, was suddenly put in a sensitive position to believe the accusations and confront a prestigious colleague and friend about his behavior. But this is something she should have found a way to do and at least bring the incident to the attention of the national office of the Guild to seek advice, especially since at this time another chapter member had also reported to her about being sexually harassed by Steve. I am told by the USBG that, at the time, two incidents was enough to seek action (one is enough now, but more on that later), and had Sarah sought assistance from the national office, Steve would have at the very least been advised to undergo sexual harassment training. Had that still not prevented him from his harassing behavior, then an investigation into his removal would have taken place. 

The timing couldn’t have been worse. The two women’s formal accusations coincided with Steve’s nomination to one of the highest ranking positions within the chapter council. Steve came through the nomination process easily because the texts he sent were no longer available to access as evidence against him. His position became more powerful, more high profile and allowed him to meet other women who were allegedly harassed. 

The community does play a role in part of this too. Steve was well known for public displays of intoxication and inappropriate, sometimes even violently combative behavior while out drinking. It was considered cute and funny if he was seen passed out at an event or gathering, and none of these incidents were ever reported to the USBG. Since this is a role model type of position, he should never have been nominated in the first place. Sexual abuse allegations aside, someone with a known drinking problem should not be considered to take elective office, especially one that oversees events with almost unlimited access to alcohol. Why did the USBG community think he was a viable candidate for this position in the first place?

Foul play at cocktail competitions

Cocktail competitions are an important component to professional bartending because not only are some of the rewards enough to help pay the bills or provide travel possibilities and professional experiences that would otherwise be financially unattainable, they are also valuable career boosters that directly impact job opportunities. The other women he allegedly harassed over the years – at least two more that were willing to go on record – all relied on competitions to further their careers.

Michelle’s story almost identically matches Laura’s. According to Michelle, he sometimes came to her place of work and made leering and disturbing gestures toward her while on the job, followed by a series of sexually explicit texts requesting that they meet. The frequency and content of his texts had become so shocking and troubling that she contacted authorities, who felt there was significant enough evidence to bring criminal charges, but she didn’t file them for fear of retaliation. She felt too threatened to continue participating in the USBGNY or enter cocktail competitions with the chance he would also be a participant, or worse, a judge. Another woman, Dorie, met Steve while he was out of town at a punch competition in the midwest, and was subject to the same power trip, which, also through text, quickly turned creepy and threatening and put her off any hopes of working in NYC. Yet another told me she continued to pay dues to the USBG, but, even though she was not sexually harassed, told me that she was too afraid to attend meetings in person to avoid any confrontation with him because of an incident involving a competition and other professional contexts. A once very active member, her sudden absence was never brought to question by the USBGNY. Laura tells me there have been times she found herself competing in the same cocktail competition as Steve, and had requested her station be far removed from his.

No excuses

Loyalty can only go so far. As a top council member, Sarah is a volunteer, but to be in that role also involves a commitment to listening to grievances from chapter members and managing conflicts within the chapter – it’s what you sign up for. The women have each relayed to me that as his accusers, when they exchanged messages with Sarah about the incidents, they were advised to sympathize with Steve for his actions, and felt as though they were being victim shamed for coming forward. In some of the messages, Sarah continues to defend Steve because time had passed and he had sought treatment for his addiction to alcohol. The women felt as though their continued attempts to seek a resolution to the case and have Steve removed from the Guild to prevent harm to themselves and others due to his abusive and harassing behavior was flipped as their fault for possibly causing undue harm to him and his career. They felt as though in trying to settle incidents that have lasting, emotionally scarring effects that they will carry with them the rest of their lives, they were treated as though they were the ones doing the harassing.

Attempts at resolution

Between 2014 and 2017, while confirming there was another accuser, Sarah offered to Laura that she would take the matter to national to seek advice and possible next steps. In 2017, Laura still had not heard back from her and built up the courage to take the matter to them herself. This was months before #MeToo even erupted. By this point Sarah had risen to the national council of the Guild. Laura shared the emails to national with me, and they show that after several frustrating exchanges with long stretches of unanswered replies (keeping in mind that the Guild operates on a volunteer basis and that bartenders are busy people), Laura was instructed to present the conflict for handling by the National Resolution Committee. Who they are is explained in one of the emails: “The National Resolution Committee (NRC) is part of the United States Bartenders’ Guild. It was formed in 2015 by the Board of Directors to codify the USBG Conflict Resolution policy and procedure based on the Board of Directors’ experience working through member and chapter conflicts.” In the first exchange with Laura they admit they have limited experience in these matters, and are working toward a better protocol for sexual harassment issues within the Guild.

At this time, Dorie also went national with her case (it turns out she was harassed around the same time as Laura, but hadn’t reported it till 2017 for fear of retaliation) and presented it before the NRC. The first email states: “…The NRC works to establish a clear course of action and to assure that resolutions are unbiased, of high-integrity, and fair to all parties.” After a series of other exchanges in which Dorie included evidence of many of the very disturbing texts she received from Steve and the course of action she took with the USBGNY, the NRC states, “The Task Force met, reviewed the complaints submitted, and made a recommendation for resolution, which was not accepted [by the accused].” In another email they provide further detail: “The National Resolution Committee thoroughly investigated your complaint dated December 10, 2017, reported its findings to the Board of Directors and made a recommendation both to the Respondent and to the Board that materially complied with your submitted request for resolution in which you stated the following action request:

  • Request for Change to USBG Policy
  • Request for Change to Member Behavior
  • Request for Change to Elected Officer or Staff Behavior
  • Request for Apology or Recognition of Wrongdoing”

Steve was asked to resign effective February 1, 2018. From here, they thank Dorie for bringing the matter to their attention and that it prompted an urgent obligation to reform their policies moving forward, including the vetting process for elections. It was a small victory, finally. Though it must have felt long and emotionally draining for the accusers, the process with the NRC took about 8 weeks, which is short in the scope the Hollywood #MeToo investigations. 

In January of 2018, Eric, the person who took over Sarah’s role at USBGNY turned in his own formal resignation. According to Eric, at this point, it had been a full year since it was suggested Steve be requested to resign (because the board couldn’t legally force his removal) not only because of the now evident sexual harassment allegations but because of his apparent unwillingness to carry out his responsibilities according to policies. At this point, there had been posts on social media alluding to the various incidents. The story to some extent was now public. Because Steve still hadn’t resigned, a venue that had volunteered to host Guild members at their annual Christmas party withdrew their invitation, stating clearly they had concerns about the safety conditions of the party if Steve attended since he was still part of the Guild. That was the last straw for Eric.

Announcement of Steve’s resignation was lumped in with that of Eric’s. He maintains these are separate incidents and should have been dealt with separately both because of the timing and the sensitive nature of the reasons why they occurred.

No other disciplinary action against Steve could be taken because of certain legalities. He still, as of press time, holds a high profile job with unlimited access to alcohol and freely interacts with the bartending community. He still enters and sometimes judges cocktail competitions and is able to meet women new to the scene and can contact them as he wishes. Meanwhile, the women who went to the USBG with their cases are still afraid to be in the same public space with him, and are wary of competing in case he is also a contestant. Their #MeToo moment has largely gone unrealized.

New USBG guidelines

I reached out to Aaron Gregory Smith, Executive Director of the USBG. He explained that there has been an overhaul of many policies within the Guild following the incident, which had been found to be a major hindrance in moving toward proactive decisions surrounding the case within the NY chapter. He did explain that the old policies existed in the forms they took because of the complicated legalities surrounding a volunteer-based organization that acts outside of a traditional workplace – they can’t legally handle matters that take place outside of meetings or USBG-led events, when many of the offenses allegedly took place. They could potentially be sued for discrimination if a member is kicked out for things they did offsite. But with these considerations, he admits there were some missteps, and there is now a clearer code of conduct and protocol in place in terms of dealing with such incidents. He stresses that anyone who feels their rights have been threatened or violated under USBG jurisdiction is urged to report the matter immediately. The new sexual harassment and anti-discrimination policies, including course of action if an individual feels their report of inappropriate behavior was retaliated against by an alleged harasser, can be viewed here

To further overhaul its policies in the wake of this scandal, USBGNY has been working with OutsmartNYC, “…a collective of industry staff, patrons, educators, and activists organizing to prevent and end sexual violence in bars, restaurants, and nightclubs.” They will be holding workshops with the Guild as well as private tutorials with establishments to make the city a safer place both for the hospitality industry and patrons.

In addition, just last week, the USBG announced the Alteristic Green Dot workshop. According to a recent email blast, this is “…an innovative workshop focused on preventing sexual assault through bystander intervention. The workshop focuses on equipping bartenders, servers, managers, and/or owners with the tools to respond when they notice behaviors that could lead to or constitute sexual assault and harassment in their bars. Additionally, we will learn how to engage in behaviors that establish a climate of dignity and respect.”

The workshops, which are taught by appropriately trained professionals, launched at the regional conference in Cleveland, and will be held at regional conferences in Miami and DC, as well as Chicago Style, Tales of the Cocktail, and with plans for Portland Cocktail Week yet to be confirmed. The program is currently sponsored by Bacardí, Beam Suntory, Campari America, Diageo, Edrington, Samson & Surrey, William Grant & Sons, and more, with others slated to sign on. Additional brands are invited to join. More about Green Dot and the Midwest Regional Conference notes can be read here.

What can be done according to Time’s Up

I also consulted the  Time’s Up network, a formal sexual abuse crisis center and legal defense fund that was organized in the wake of the Hollywood sexual abuse scandals that came to light in October of 2017. It is a valuable online resource for anyone of any gender identity or persuasion who feels victimized by abusive behavior in professional settings. (Unfortunately such an entity did not exist when Laura and the others were going through their struggle.) Through them I was connected to Sunu Chandy, the legal director of the National Women’s Law Center to see if she could offer some advice. She says it is important to note the “workplace adjacent” responsibilities of the Guild in handling sexual abuse matters. She says that instead of going to another entity within the very same organization they were confronting, which can be a long, wearing process in order to weigh all the facts, the victims could have contacted someone at the NWLC Legal Network for Gender Equality, which is set up to handle these sorts of cases free of charge. Someone could have walked them through their legal options, as well as give other meaningful advice about the necessary steps in confronting it and finding a satisfying resolution.

As for the USBG itself, Chandy says that even though it is not a legal requirement, the culture needs to be free of any elements that can cause harm to members. Hopefully its new code of conduct, workshops and guidelines will make that possible.

One thing should be clear – if anyone says they are being harassed they should be believed. Full stop. Never underestimate how difficult and painful it is for someone to say they have received unwanted sexual attention or threatening communications. If you are in a position of management and someone tells you they are being harassed by a co-worker/team member, confront that person immediately. Do everything possible to make it feel safe to come to work or a public meeting place. Most importantly, do your best not to give someone cause to feel as though they themselves are doing something wrong by seeking help.  

In addition, I will add that the election process could use some overhauling. Just because someone is a good bartender with a lot of visibility doesn’t necessarily mean they are a competent leader or role model able to handle such delicate matters as well as the added responsibilities and tasks that leadership entails. Anyone with a pattern of substance abuse should not be considered for these roles, as well as anyone who has a history of workplace behavioral issues. Leading, delegating and taking responsibility for a group of people is a different skill set than tending a bar. Green Dot is a terrific start. Workplace sexual harassment training and other types of management training should be a requirement to be a council member both on the local and national level, especially since alcohol is involved. Vet the bartender who is most qualified for the job for their leadership abilities, not their popularity.

Eric tells me that “with the trash taken out” and some meaningful reform in policies, he would be more than happy to return to the USBG. He says he thoroughly enjoys being part of the community and would even consider serving again. Hopefully with new initiatives and policies in place, this can happen.

It’s brave to move to a new city and forge a career. Braver still to speak up if a work-related atmosphere doesn’t feel safe. Preying on someone sexually or otherwise to make yourself feel more powerful and relevant in the workplace? That’s entirely the opposite.

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