The dark side of hospitality

27 March, 2018 by
Melissa Leong

When you look beneath the façade, all is not what it seems. Hospitality is an industry of excess, which can result in a downward spiral for all parties involved. 

If you don’t believe the cliché about food people being this generation’s rockstars (food and drink; opiate of the masses), the number of uncomfortable-looking chefs and restaurateurs in fancy duds staring back from the pages of glossy magazines would have you thinking otherwise. Those in the industry know that part of what gives the industry its rock ‘n’ roll edge is the ‘live fast and hard’ attitude that hums along beneath the surface.

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Of course, the hospitality industry isn’t apart from finance or even dentistry for that matter; no industry is exempt from the darker parts of human behaviour and cultural proclivity. But the hospitality industry’s unique cocktail of conditions is particularly potent.

Long hours, high pressure, passionate creatives, tight social structures forged in the heat of service — along with close proximity to the pleasures of excess — can result in darker elements becoming normalised features of the workplace.

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Anecdotal stories of narcissistic behaviour, bullying, drug and alcohol abuse and other mental and physical problems aren’t shocking to those who’ve worked a service, yet the rhetoric surrounding the impact this has on the sustainability of a business is only now becoming more prevalent.

One way to explain the ubiquitous nature of these elements in the industry is how lifestyle affects behaviour. “We know a healthy lifestyle is the key,” says Michael Inglis, psychologist and director of Melbourne wellness clinic The Mind Room. “Diet, sleep, exercise, alcohol and drug intake all affect the body and the mind, so it’s no surprise that an imbalance can lead to a breakdown of inhibition and the development of negative work culture.” An imbalance can result in workplace affairs, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, stealing, financial mismanagement and other less-savoury happenings.

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“Our industry can be based on the promotion of hedonistic behaviour which is all-consuming,” says chef David Moyle. “The basic act of hospitality starts with the offer of a drink. And all too often the perception of ‘proper hospitality’ is to have excess both in food and booze, more than you can handle … The big issue is that it can mask a lot of other issues. I guess it is our own responsibility to strive for balance.”

The impact of a breakdown of ethics and a respectful business attitude isn’t just restricted to relationships with co-workers and family members, but also suppliers. “It’s hard being a small business that supplies prominent restaurants in Australia when your business is out of pocket and the restaurant’s account is overdue, yet you see the owners flaunting an excessive lifestyle,” says an unnamed wine supplier. “Expensive bottles of wine, boozy nights out and huge staff parties (often documented on social media) … all when they are 120 days in arrears isn’t a good look, but sadly it’s not uncommon.”

Respected seafood purveyor Costa Nemitsas of Southern Fresh Seafood has had a similar experience. “Between 1993 and 2006, I calculated that I had to write off about $1 million in unpaid accounts,” he says. “Now, I’m much more cautious about who I do business with.”

An environment of excess and behaviour imbalance isn’t healthy, but it is changing. Journalist Larissa Dubecki recently called the cultural shift towards a healthier direction ‘seismic’. But many would still call you a hero for downing half a bottle of whisky for knock-offs before heading to Chinatown for XO pippies, getting home at 5am and turning up to work a few hours later.

“It falls on the leaders of the organisation to create and maintain workplace environment and culture,” says Inglis. “They set the standard and it’s up to them to steer it in a positive direction.”

With greater industry discussion surrounding a broader adoption of more balanced work hours and a focus on staff wellbeing, let’s hope this is a seismic shift that sticks.

This story originally appeared in Hospitality’s March issue. Subscribe here.

Image credit: Traveller