How I Fended Off Sexual Advances And Abusiveness As A Service Worker
What happens culture, class, and cues collide
When a hotel guest, the age of my mother, invited me out for a drink, I nearly choked on my saliva as I tried to respond.
It was 1995. I was a naive 23-year-old who wore a silly uniform behind the front desk at one of the most prestigious New York City hotels. I had noticed this woman wait for my station to become available. Perhaps I had assisted her before, I thought. I had only been working there for two weeks and had already dealt with returning customers.
Despite the late hour, the lobby bustled with activity as she approached my station, and I welcomed her with our standard greeting.
“Good evening. How may I be of service?”
“Be of service?” she asked. “My. My. Interesting. Checking in.”
I looked up her reservation, and she continued. “You look tired.”
I beamed a smile, fearful of being reported for my sour expression. “Sorry, it’s near the end of my shift.”
She asked me a series of personal but innocuous questions as I swiped her credit card and coded her keys.
“Hey,” she said. “Does your girlfriend know you flirt with your customers?”
Shit. Was I flirting? I’m so going to get fired.
“Oh, I don’t have a girlfriend. Sorry, I — ”
“That’s surprising. Listen, where can I get a drink around here? Somewhere quiet but outside the hotel.”
The routine question broke the tension. I wrote down the name of the bar and handed it to her. “Upscale and quiet but not stuffy. You’ll love it.”
She leaned in and smiled. “Buy you a drink if you escort me there. Wouldn’t mind the company. End of your shift, right?”
The noise seemed to disappear as I considered her invitation. It flattered me at first, but then I questioned myself. Did I lead her on? Did I do something out of line? “Thank you, but I’m working the early shift tomorrow,” I lied. “I need to get some sleep.”
Later, when I brought it up with a coworker, she shrugged. “You work the desk.”
It was a source of pride for us. We worked the desk at one of the most recognized hotels in the world. Dealing with crazies, sexual advances, and verbal abuse was part of our job. It transformed us into seasoned professionals.
After a few weeks of constant gaslighting, I bought into that bullshit. It turned out to be a survival skill as the opportunities to test my mental toughness proved abundant.
Now a veteran after a few months, I moved to the overnight shift working mostly unsupervised. One night a guy came in looking for a room. I quoted him the rate, and he tried to negotiate.
Ten minutes into his check-in, we’re still going back and forth. I held firm, only because he acted like such an ass.
Eventually, I tired of dealing with his bullshit, and I had work to do, so I offered him a reduced rate. He thanked me profusely and then extended his hand. I shook it. He held it a few seconds longer than customary and then asked if I was gay. I said no, and he departed without apologizing.
A coworker who witnessed the exchange pulled me aside. “Did he…”
“Yes, he did.”
“You work the desk,” he said.
For some of my female coworkers, these propositions happened often. For me, it occurred once or twice a month.
Every time I politely declined or gave some lame excuse, I wondered if they would complain to my manager and say that I gave poor service.
No, not all customers were looking for out of town hookups. Most were respectful, but there were plenty of guests who showed up eager to assert their dominance. I lost count of how many times someone called me an asshole or told me to go fuck myself because I couldn’t upgrade them to a suite for free.
To this day, I beat myself up for that first time someone cursed me out. I apologized instead of defending myself. In later incidents, I asserted my rights. But man, I’ll never let go of that first one.
Six months into my job, they promoted me to Assistant Front Desk Manager. I shed my uniform and put on a proper suit. I never received a sexual advance after that. The abusive language decreased dramatically too.
What made me and my front desk compatriots such targets for abuse? A combination of factors created that toxic environment.
The phrase, “how may I be of service” is just so icky. Sorry, there’s no other word to describe it. Couple that with the fake smile and chipper attitude we showered on each customer, and it’s no wonder some guests would misinterpret our niceties as flirting.
Our uniform also sent a signal. Whether conscious or unconscious, our clothes signaled inferiority to the decked-out business travelers.
Working the desk at an exclusive hotel brought with it a level of status that you couldn’t get from working at a more pedestrian hotel. It gave us a higher standing in the eyes of guests. More importantly, staying at a world-class hotel gave them an undeserved sense of self-importance as if the few nights they stayed with us bumped them up into a prestigious class, entitled to abuse the ones there to serve them.
Does anyone still believe the customer is always right bullshit? How do you reconcile the customer is always right with you as an employee has rights? Too many people, especially in the 90s, took this phrase too literally. Employees felt trapped by it, while guests believed it granted them the right to get away with questionable behavior.
On paper, there were avenues to complain. But most of us were in our early twenties, trying to build a career. If you desired to thrive in the hospitality industry, you needed to develop a reputation for dealing with unruly customers.
Surviving testy, even abusive confrontations with our guests allowed us to prove our fortitude and show our battle scars. It afforded us opportunities to get noticed, giving us a leg up on promotions. It sounds ridiculous, but we bought into the idea that taking abuse proved our worth.
What happens when culture, class, and cues collide
The challenges we faced in that contrived universe still exist today, though not as blatant as back then. Culture influences what we value, just like I came to believe taking abuse was a source of pride.
Perceived differences in class affect the way we judge people, even if we’re not conscious of it. People who spend large sums of money still feel entitled to assert their dominance.
Perhaps most important, but rarely talked about, is how easy it is to misinterpret cues — words, mannerisms, and appearances. When a service worker smiles or acts friendly, they’re doing their job. It’s seldom a sign of sexual interest. And nobody in uniform feels they deserve verbal abuse.
There’s an art to dealing with these situations for the service worker. They want to assert themselves, but they also want to protect their jobs. Perhaps it’s best if we, their customers, avoid putting them in situations where they need to balance those two needs.