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Testimony of Erin Wade, Founder and CEO of Homeroom

Acting Chair Lipnic, Commissioner Feldblum, and Task Force members, it is a pleasure to speak with you this morning about Homeroom's innovative harassment prevention system.

My name is Erin Wade.  I am a lawyer, a policy nerd, and the owner of a restaurant called Homeroom.  The staff at my restaurant developed a system for combating harassment from customers, and I am here to tell you why it should become the national standard for solving this epidemic and how you can help.

Homeroom's Values and Stellar Performance

While I have a policy degree from Princeton and a law degree from Berkeley, my greatest professional accomplishment has happened through macaroni and cheese.  I left behind a career in labor and employment law to open a mac and cheese restaurant called Homeroom because I saw business as the greatest way to create the kind of systemic change I wanted to see in the world. 

Homeroom's financials are in the top 1% of restaurant performance, and we do it while paying our staff a starting wage of nearly $17/hour, with a leadership team that is 70% women and people of color, and by using a lot of pretty radical approaches to business (open book finance, restorative conflict resolution, etc.).  And if we can do it in the restaurant industry where the failure rate is upwards of 90%, then anyone can do it.  You can read more about our values here with links to articles on each: https://homeroom510.com/values/

Homeroom has been featured everywhere from the Cooking Channel to USA Today to the Wall Street Journal, and our anti-harassment system system was recently featured in the Washington Post, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and on 20/20.

Homeroom's Game-Changing Anti-Harassment System

Homeroom's stated mission is to be the best part of people's day for both guests and staff, and we are committed to building a restaurant culture that is inclusive, diverse and counter to many damaging industry norms. I thought we were doing an excellent job until three years ago, when I received a flood of emails from staff labeled "harassment" and requesting a meeting with me.             

The catalyst was a customer - ­ a father of four who had put his hand up the shirt of a busser clearing his family's table. The busser was so stunned she didn't report it, but the event sparked a flood of reactions from staff members who'd had similar experiences. At our meeting, women shared stories about harassment from customers and said that when they tried to report it to male managers, they were often ignored because the incidents seemed unthreatening through a male lens.

We reconvened for a problem-solving session: We knew that we had to create something that didn't rely on men making judgment calls on women's stories, because it was clear that system was failing all of us.

We decided on a color-coded system in which different types of customer behavior are categorized as yellow, orange or red. Yellow refers to a creepy vibe or unsavory look. Orange means comments with sexual undertones, such as certain compliments on a worker's appearance. Red signals overtly sexual comments or touching, or repeated incidents in the orange category after being told the comments were unwelcome.

When a staff member has a harassment problem, they report the color - "I have an orange at table five" - and the manager is required to take a specific action. If red is reported, the customer is ejected from the restaurant. Orange means the manager takes over the table. With a yellow, the manager must take over the table if the staff member chooses. In all cases, the manager's response is automatic, no questions asked. (At the time of our meeting, all our shift managers were men, though their supervisors were women; something else we've achieved since then is diversifying each layer of management.)

In the years since implementation, customer harassment has ceased to be a problem. Reds are nearly nonexistent, as most sketchy customers seem to be derailed at yellow or orange. We found that most customers who behave inappropriately test the waters before escalating and that women have a canny sixth sense for unwanted attention. When reds do occur, our employees are empowered to act decisively.  We have also since adapted this system to apply to racial harassment, or any other form of harassing behavior from customers, vendors, delivery people, or anyone external to the company that comes into contact with staff.

The color system is elegant because it prevents women from having to relive damaging stories and relieves managers of having to make difficult judgment calls about situations that might not seem threatening based on their own experiences. The system acknowledges the differences in the ways men and women experience the world, while creating a safe workplace.

Company Culture Needed to Support Success:

Homeroom's system is relatively flawless, but people are not.  Based on our experience, here are the following cultural factors that will either contribute to the success of implementation or it's failure:

  1. Implementation Led By Women: In the wake of my Washington Post op-ed on this subject, I was surprised to discover a number of male consultants that were hired or selling consulting services to help businesses implement Homeroom's system.  While I applaud men's dedication to partnering on solutions, bringing in a man to solve what is overwhelmingly a female problem is so deeply disempowering that the women in those workplaces will feel that their voices do not hold any power whatsoever.  Women receiving these types of messaging will be less likely to speak up or feel that they could use the system at all.
  2. Female Leadership & Non-Traditional Power Dynamics: Studies on harassment overwhelmingly indicate that the main predictors of workplace harassment are a) leadership teams that are overwhelmingly male and b) teams that are strongly hierarchical. This is the prevalent culture in most companies, and Homeroom's system is very antithetical to these values. 
    1. Non-Traditional Power Dynamics: Homeroom's system takes power and judgment out of the hands of managers and offers it to staff. At Homeroom, we are committed to employee empowerment through a number of different avenues-for example, we are an open book company that shares our financials and expects employee engagement in problem solving and improving all elements of the company. Because of this culture of collaboration and transparency, our staff came up with this solution, but also, feels empowered to actually use it, and speak up more generally when it needs tweaking or evolution.  If companies do not share this value, it is unlikely that staff that are told to keep quiet elsewhere will feel comfortable speaking up here.
    2. Meaningful Rates of Female Leadership: Where we have experienced the most issues with implementation is with men who decided to not follow the system and insert their own judgment. For example, we had a clear code red where a male manager knew that a customer had inappropriately touched a staff member by placing his hand down her apron to give her a credit card, but did not eject the customer immediately because he was not sure that there was negative intent. Under the system, intent is irrelevant and that customer should have been ejected.  However, the manager could not let go of inserting his own judgment, and of identifying more with a male customer than a female staff member.  This happens because too often managers are not practiced in sharing power or authority, particularly men with women.  And when male power dynamics at most companies are the dominant culture, it makes it tough for a system to work that is predicated on women having power and authority regardless of position, and for men not to fall back on using systems of power and authority that they are more practiced with.  The only way to combat this is by having a culture meaningfully influenced by robust rates of female leadership.

Recommendations

1) Make Homeroom's System The National Standard: Help us turn Homeroom's anti-harassment system into a national standard.  It is simple, it is elegant, and it works.  We want to help lead the movement towards systemic change, and Homeroom is already developing robust training systems and resources for other employers that would like to implement our system.

2) Change The Power Structure That Perpetuates the Problem: Ensure that this movement is led by women. If we do not change the power dynamics that gave rise to this problem, implementation of Homeroom's anti-harassment system, or any anti-harassment system, will not work.  When men are our leaders for introducing solutions to women's problems, we merely perpetuate the same disempowering dynamics that created this problem in the first place, and ensure that this negative cycle is doomed to repeat itself. Men-I invite you to be our teammates-but women, we need you to be our captains. 

3) Use Carrots, Not Sticks: I left behind my career in law because I saw how broken the American legal system is and how well-intentioned laws are grossly abused by those with negative incentives.  I do not believe that the answer to this problem lies in legislation-it lies elsewhere.  I hope that this task force will explore creative solutions and research that get to the heart of this issue, and create compelling positive reasons for employers to embrace meaningful change.

4) Highlight the Solutions of Female Leaders: The kind of behavior that is just now being exposed has gone on for as long as business has existed, and for just as long, women have been toiling to create different cultures, norms, and paradigms.  These are the stories we rarely hear, and it is time they are spoken.  Instead of discussing the misbehavior of men, let's start exposing the great work of women around the country to create more inclusive places for us all to work.  The revolution we need is not just ousting powerful men behaving badly, but elevating the status of women behaving well.  We need to listen to the suggestions of women for how to solve the problems plaguing them, and put them in the position to change their own worlds.