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by Brittany Ingram

If you are lucky, this is just a Sister Sledge song you’re listening to as a guest at a wedding and nothing more. If you’re not so fortunate, you are a server who is refilling a coffee station at the wedding reception while the song plays, reminding you of your boss’s favorite saying to “inspire” you and your coworkers during any given shift. 

There’s an unspoken rule regarding someone as family: that you will go above and beyond to help them in any scenario.  But it can be harmful to not have boundaries in place in your professional (orpersonal) relationships. The “We’re AFamily” trope within workplaces, at face value appears to be something you’d desire ibut, once unwrapped, it’s only a tool to enable toxic behaviors, push limits, create excuses, bully and even perpetuate unwanted advancements.

Kitchens are one of the few work environments that have a level of domesticity entangled within them. Chefs incorporate family recipes into their work, family meals eaten together with the staff, and working most major holidays together – it makes it even easier to buy into the concept of a Work Family. If nothing else, it makes the isolating loneliness of working odd hours easier to stomach.  

But that familial closeness can be a manipulative tool to pressure employees into performing tasks outside of their designated job description – anything to make the kitchen or next shift successful. Your willingness to go the extra mile for a coworker because they are “family,” while a kind gesture, can become an expected standard from those around you, and only the employer reaps the benefits of your self-exploitation. In some instances, if an employee does not buy into the concept of a Work Family, they can become ostracized and looked over for future opportunities or other benefits offered to those who are in the inner circle. 

We are only human. It’s completely natural that after spending 40+ hours a week with the same people, that friendships will develop. After all, we are not robots. But, imagine what our society would look like if a 40+ hour work week wasn’t the standard and you weren’t substituting a family of coworkers for your actual family, significant others, and friends. The root of why we are attracted to a Work Family is because humans crave that connection and will seek it out to enrich our lives. The illusion of a Work Family may appear as unconditional but is often rescinded when the relationship is no longer beneficial for the business. This can create an abusive cycle in the workplace that leaves workers burnt out and morale low.

It’s Not In The Budget  

“We can’t afford new silverware right now” “We can’t afford to replace the broken dishwasher, we will have to wash by hand” “We can’t afford another line cook”  – it’s simply not in the budget. We’ve all heard something to the tune of that before, right? I used to work in a country club that would put on a fantastic Sunday brunch buffet that was always a big hit with the members. We would serve an extravagantly planned and executed menu that always included a guest-favorite: crab legs. However, we only had about 17 crab leg cracker tools to put out for use. Most Sundays, our banquet chefs, servers, and the dishwasher would scramble for the length of brunch to keep the 17 crab leg crackers washed and in circulation for the 200-400 guests to use. It was frequently requested from the staff to order more of the crab leg crackers to ensure we didn’t continue to run into the same problem, and we were always told the same thing: that it wasn’t in the budget. It may not have been in the supply budget but, the cost of the crab leg crackers was hemorrhaging out of the labor budget on a weekly basis. A one-time purchase would have saved employees from having to expend their energy doing busy work, when they could have (been able to focus on their respective roles.) better employed themselves with more pertinent aspects of their roles. This is just one example of the way employers will burn through existing employees to cut labor or supply costs to make their bottom line look good.

A Jack of All Trades, Master of None

With turnover rates being as high as they are in kitchens, cross-training is something that is nearly inevitable in the industry – whether it’s planned for or not. Cross-training can be presented in a positive light, with the promise of a raise or promotion being used to sweeten the deal (that may not ever come to fruition due to chronic understaffing which can quickly sour the experience). Typically, it’s the loyal employees that are tapped for cross-training opportunities due to their dedication, resilience, and desire to become more diversified in the industry. 

At best it’s a symbiotic situation for the employer and employee, allowing the employee to expand their skill set on the job, while allowing the employer to cover absences and delay filling open positions to skimp on the labor budget . At worst, it’s an exploitative relationship that pressures an employee to take on more responsibilities than the position they were hired to do whenever needed. This can cause burnout from consistently having their focus divided and can result in poor morale among staff. 

Kitchens are not like a typical office job where you can put off a task until Monday morning simply because of employee absence. If a line cook or a dishwasher are unexpectedly out due to illness, it falls on the chef or cross-trained employees to absorb the empty position to meet business needs for the day. There are benefits to cross-training but, the majority are reaped by the employer and not the employee.

Our Employees Make It All Possible

This certainly rings true across the industry. Without the dutiful employees who show up ready for whatever the next shift holds in store for them, there would just be ingredients sitting on shelves in walk-in coolers and empty seats in restaurants across America. It’s your ingenuity and labor that you bring to the table that injects life into this business. We are getting just a taste of this as restaurants struggle to reopen after COVID-19 and are unable to do so without the ever-valuable employees. 

But, when was the last time this was appropriately appreciated by employers or even the community you serve? 

And no, pizza parties do not count. 

Even if your job has done something to recognize employees, either with bonuses, gift cards, or other kickbacks, did you feel like it was a genuine appreciation?  Or a only favor that was being extended to you to be cashed in on the next time the need for you to work a double arises?  

I think we’ve all heard it at some point: “I can’t give you a raise right now, my hands are tied.” Those are disappointing words to hear from a boss. Especially after being a loyal employee, opting to be cross-trained and take on new responsibilities, disbursing your labor when new supplies or staff weren’t in the budget, after being there for your Work Family, that your time and talents are not worth a pay increase. Feeling dejected and devalued by your existing work, you make the decision to seek out new employment elsewhere. It’s usually around this time whenever you put in a two week notice that suddenly – magically even – there is money in the budget for the raise you asked for. 

It’s certainly tempting to stay on with an existing employer if a pay increase is offered so maybe you do but, the fact that you had to threaten to leave to be compensated as a valued employee hangs in the air. There is no amount of food trucks, pizza parties, or gift cards that can equate to a steady, reliable paycheck to show an employee that they are appreciated and crucial to the business.

It’s so easy to buy into the culture of a workplace and accept things as they are presented to you to be “just how things are in a kitchen” but, remember your power. You are the indispensable link that creates profit for the restaurant. Without cooks, servers, and dishwashers, a restaurant is just a building filled with hangry guests and a clueless boss who is unable to bring about the desired objective for their business. You are worthy of a livable wage, you deserve a healthy, professional relationship with your job, and the tools to do what is asked of you. 

While the concept of a Work Family is nostalgic and alluring, forming a link of solidarity among staff is more sustainable in resisting exploitation from your employer, speaking the truth in your workplace, and demanding your worth.