The following article was written by Tara Nurin exclusively for ProBrewer. Visit the ProBrewer Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion resource page here for additional DEI articles and resources.
When a Massachusetts brewer’s Instagram feed erupted with more than 1000 allegations of sexual and workplace discrimination, harassment and abuse in the beer industry in May 2021, some breweries and affiliated entities snapped into action. Others still haven’t acknowledged the situation.
Whether or not your business has been named in the narrative or you’ve already issued your own internal response, your employees are very likely carrying more stress than usual — particularly if they’re female or come from an underrepresented population — as they attempt to adjust to lives upended by the COVID-19 pandemic; the great racial reckoning of 2020; and, now, craft beer’s better-late-than-never #MeToo revolution. In public and private conversations, they’re crying out for your leadership, telling friends they crave your empathy, and, most importantly, begging for your assurance they can feel safe coming to work.
You’re not alone if you haven’t taken any action. Even the most well-intentioned employers can let uncertainty, paralysis or fear keep them from addressing the issue. But as the expression “the cover-up is worse than the lie” suggests, ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away … it simply compounds it. And in the 21st century, it’s not a matter of if ultimately successful beer-related businesses are going to de-center their owners, board members and upper-level managers in favor of employees and customers, but when.
Americans’ expectations for job satisfaction are shifting, and the proof of a positive or poor environment presents itself in the bottom line. Low morale leads to high absenteeism — estimated to cost companies an average of 9% of payroll — and high turnover rates, whose costs can equal up to two years of salary.
Workplace stress is a chief cause of low morale, as is a lack of trust between the ranks. Both can lead to a collapse of employee engagement, which translates to weak customer service.
To put it in brewery terms, the Secret Hopper mystery shopping service has determined that taproom guests are only 40% likely to return if they don’t receive a sincere and friendly hello and goodbye. But they’ll return 95% of the time if they receive this type of warm interaction from an engaged and presumably content worker.
Instead of hiding, addressing the #MeToo accusations directly and improving communication generally will help foster a higher degree of accountability, professionalism and comfort that patrons will almost surely feel, share and appreciate. As the late poet, musician and Buddhist monk Leonard Cohen wrote, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
So it’s okay if you haven’t done anything … yet. Get started by taking these steps now. Your staff, lawyer, accountant, and Leonard Cohen will thank you.
- Communicate with (not at) your employees
Seventy-two hours after the #MeToo allegations emerged, the owners of Broken Goblet Brewing outside Philadelphia took to the WhatsApp thread they use to dialogue with employees to ask for input on how to handle the controversy, which did not target them. Some back-and-forth later, the majority agreed that they did not favor management making an external statement but that they did want to meet in June to talk about it in person.
Until then, says co-owner Mike Lock, “They thought that we would do what we normally do, which is super-duper transparent conversation with everyone an equal player.”
Though issuing a bland statement of support for victims and intolerance for bad behavior sends a more positive message than doing nothing, employees often learn to trust the establishment and each other when they can speak freely about their feelings without threat of judgment or repercussions from superiors or, ideally, their peers.
By design, most employees at Wilmington, North Carolina’s TRU Colors Brewery have gang affiliation. After passing through a rigorous interview process, each cohort of new hires begins employment seated in a room with a dozen — often rival — gang members to talk to one another about their lives, families, hardships, heartbreaks, and aspirations.
Though it usually takes a few days for the loud arguments to quiet down, Chief People Officer Khalilah “KO” Olokunola says the initiation is imperative to building a team.
“We found the best way to build trust is to connect people by putting the tools and systems in place to have the conversations,” she says.
To implement this at your business, schedule individual department meetings ASAP and appoint at least one trusted member of senior management to lead, in-person if possible. Small groups encourage members to share more vulnerably than large ones.
J Jackson-Beckham, equity and inclusion partner for the Brewers Association (BA), recommends that leaders, “Provide information about the organization’s equity and inclusion vision, strategy, and goals.”
Ask everyone to leave denial and defensiveness at the door and to resist badgering speakers with questions about their experiences. Take notes, validate concerns and promise to follow up with investigations and solutions. Then do it.
- Write and enforce a code of conduct
“This has been such a wake-up call,” says Lock. “We don’t have a written code of conduct. We don’t have an employee handbook. We have not done this correctly. Our female manager has been our HR, and we are in the process of hiring a GM, and we expect they will help teach us how to do this right from now on.”
If you don’t already have policies around the behavior and treatment of employees, draft yourself a code of conduct to supplement the standard operating procedures you either have or plan to write. It took the attorney and board of Philly Loves Beer (PLB), the organization that hosts Philly Beer Week, a mere four days to draw up and pass a code of conduct for themselves, as well as member breweries and venues. They added to and combined language lifted from codes adopted by the BA, the Brewers of Pennsylvania guild and Allagash Brewing in Maine, which boasts one of the country’s most robust brewery human relations departments. Just in time for beer week at the beginning of June 2021, they posted it on the organization’s website along with guidelines for hosting safe events.
PLB made the code quite explicit so as to reduce grey areas. To wit, it reads, in part, “Harassment, bullying and discrimination can take many forms, including, but not limited to, unwelcome, offensive, or derogatory words, gestures, jokes, pranks, teasing, pictures, photos, recordings, materials, postings, ogling, stalking, intimidation, physical contact, advances, propositions, threats, or violence. … Harassment may extend to those advocating, encouraging, or participating in any manner in the above behaviors.”
The code also highlights the existence of third-party vendors like Lighthouse Services who can help craft a code for your company.
- Perform a Corporate Audit
Leaders of healthy companies know it’s worth periodically taking some steps back from the day-to-day to objectively assess the emotional wellbeing of the entity they lead by conducting an audit of their corporate culture. While it makes sense to convene a committee of department delegates when everything seems to be sailing along smoothly, in times of potential malaise, they’re better off bringing in an outsider who, chances are, will elicit more honest responses.
Though over the long-term it makes sense to hire a professional to do human resources work, there’s nothing wrong with quickly calling in a serious-minded, trust-worthy amateur to jump start the audit process.
Just as soon as the #MeToo allegations appeared online, the owner of Minneapolis’ Sociable Cider Werks asked his former sales and distribution manager, Kelsi Moffitt, if and how she might perform a sexual harassment audit for the cidery. She told him she would start by circulating an (optional) anonymous survey among the workforce, perhaps by using a platform as low-maintenance as Google Forms. She would then analyze the data, identify negative patterns, and propose solutions. She made clear that she would invite participation from all employees — male, female and non-binary — to give equal voice to all genders.
This would encourage respondents to record incidents or information they no longer wished to pursue for investigation while giving them a chance to fill in a picture of overall morale without any chance of retribution. Moffitt, who has no formal HR training but has spent decades as an operations manager and employee confidante across various industries, would also ask for volunteers to opt-in to further, non-anonymous, questioning and discussion.
A few preliminary conversations with previous colleagues — including some who still work at Sociable and some who don’t — laid bare some stark realities for Moffitt that underscore the need for almost any company to hire outside help to gather sensitive information like this.
She says, “Some of my previous co-workers did not want to be interviewed, did not want to have discussions about their complaints, and absolutely didn’t want to return calls or requests for interviews from the owners of the brewery.”
Why? They expressed reservations over potentially getting: talked over, told they’d interpreted the situation wrong, and scolded that they didn’t remember incidents correctly. They feared the conversations would be triggering.
So Moffitt made note that any future employee interviews on the topic of harassment should be prefaced with an assurance that this would not be interrogation but rather a time to report concerns without much prompting by the interviewer. She planned to ask what would allow them to feel heard and leave satisfied, as well as expectations for the process and hopes for the outcome.
Though Moffitt didn’t end up partnering with Sociable on the proposed audit, if they had, Moffitt could have written her own survey with assistance from prompts and tips from in-depth articles like this one. Or a simple Google search would have steered her to a plethora of online examples and tools for analysis.
One reminder to employers planning to conduct an audit: be sure to dissect the data along lines that include age, sex, race, ethnicity, and sexual and gender orientation. Failing to do so could mean overlooking grievances held by specific subgroups that don’t show up enough to register in a single broad snapshot.
- Establish reporting systems
If you do nothing else, set up and publicize a formal, anonymous process for reporting negative experiences at work. This extends a literal lifeline to employees who fear retribution, hostility or retraumatization.
Moffitt says that during her 20 years of management, subordinates confessed these concerns over and over and over.
“The worst parts are the unknown of how people will react to you, what the steps are, and what to expect next,” she says. “I want to take all that guesswork and emotion out of it. I want to say, ‘This is the formal plan and this is what happens,’ so it can be resolved and dealt with.”
When Finback Brewery in Queens, NY, found its — now terminated — taproom and events manager on the receiving end of an anonymous accusation on the notorious Instagram feed that originally unspooled the controversy, it hired New York City Brewers Guild executive director Ann Reilly as a short-term freelancer to answer calls and emails from members of the industry and public who wish to report Finback for indiscretions.
“It works because I’m a known figure and I’m a non-connected third party who can offer safe harbor to people,” she says.
Many pre-established external reporting options also exist, some of which are fast, free and painless and can serve for the long-term as well as the now. The aforementioned Lighthouse Services offers an anonymous hotline and web reporting mechanism, a digital suggestion box and a content management system to track cases and identify patterns. NotMe supplies a free app for individuals to easily report complaints and receive guidance, while organizations can sign up to create a customized in-app reporting, investigation and resolution program.
The Brewers Association has an online form for employees of member companies to report employees of other member companies for violating its code of conduct. Though the BA has fielded a great deal of criticism for the policies that surround the code, which went into effect in August 2020, the form collected its first claims once beer’s #MeToo scandal broke.
And though no owner wants to expose themself to lawsuits, two legal entities are offering free and confidential consults to victims in the beer industry who may wish to pursue legal remedies. They can be found here and here.
For additional resources, consider steering your employees to: