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Tactics for Handling Dysfunctional Workplaces

Bâtonnage Forum panelists discuss strategies for creating more respectful and supportive work environments.

The second annual Bâtonnage forum, held on May 4 at a private estate in Napa, California, opened with an honest and timely panel discussion—Departing Dysfunction—in which three wine and hospitality industry professionals discussed how to identify inappropriate workplace behavior and how the community can enact positive change.

Moderated by Elaine Chukan Brown, a writer and public speaker based in Sonoma, California, who serves as the American specialist for JancisRobinson.com and is a contributing writer at Wine & Spirits magazine, the panel featured Vinny Eng, who was until recently the wine director for Tartine Manufactory in San Francisco, and Laura Judson, a freelance hospitality consultant with significant experience in the restaurant industry, who most recently worked as the general manager at Boot & Shoe Service, a café and restaurant in Oakland.

Brown opened the discussion by defining a dysfunctional situation in the workplace as one “that limits or impairs the agency of another person in order to make up for or cover up inadequacies, or feelings of being less than, in the person who is perpetuating the dysfunction.” She emphasized that while we as a society have historically focused on severe and legally defined instances of dysfunction—assault, for example—our goal as professionals should be to foster a functioning and respectful work environment and, as a community, place a greater focus on common problems that are not necessarily legally regulated, like bullying, unequal pay, and conflicts that may occur when employees with varying backgrounds and cultural norms and expectations have different ideas about what is considered appropriate behavior.

Recognizing Dysfunction in the Workplace

The beverage alcohol and hospitality industries are especially vulnerable to dysfunction in the workplace, said Brown. She listed several factors unique to these industries that often lead to dysfunction. Shift and off-premise work was one. Another factor, frequent changes in supervision, Brown said, can lead to “slippery notions of respect and inappropriate behavior.” Additional factors she cited included alcohol and drug use, communication difficulties that can result from the intersection of different cultures and languages, and the risk that small, family-owned businesses may not maintain healthy boundaries with employees. “The more aware we can be of what these factors are,” she said, “the more conscious we can be [about] trying to keep that in mind, and notice what we can do to encourage a more respectful environment.”  

Judson then presented three categories to help people recognize when they’re experiencing dysfunction in their workplace: physical and psychological effects, and negative effects on their careers. “I thought a lot of what I was experiencing was personal problems,” Judson said. For her, the effects of dysfunction were both physical and psychological. She developed headaches and gastrointestinal problems, as well as feelings of anxiety.

People who experience dysfunction at work may also suffer other physical symptoms, like lethargy or trouble sleeping, and negative emotions, like anger, fear, and self-doubt. If not dealt with, dysfunction can even have a negative impact on a person’s career, Judson pointed out, suggesting that it could lead to losing a promotion or cause someone to change their career entirely. “There’s an easy way to mistake all of that as a personal problem,” she said, “but these might be indicators that you are in fact in a system of abuse [at work].”

The panelists offered several tactics for leaving or reconciling a harmful situation. “Listen to your body,” said Eng, who recently left the restaurant industry for politics and is now working as the campaign organizing director for Suzy Loftus, a candidate for San Francisco district attorney. “When your body is telling you no … trust your no and really engage [it], because your body is trying to tell you to choose a bigger yes.” Eng also suggested setting boundaries with an employer and calling people out when they’re part of a greater problem—but more effectively, calling them in to be a part of the solution.

A Community Commitment to Depart from Dysfunction

The major focus of the panel was the community’s responsibility to hold harassers and bullies accountable in order to help generate a real shift in the status quo. Change is already starting to happen, said Brown. In California, companies with at least five employees are legally required to provide sexual-harassment training. Additionally, recent calls for social change across the country have resulted in companies taking more seriously the types of complaints that aren’t necessarily legally regulated.  

“But we still have a shitload of work to do,” Brown said, starting in the community. “Bring [pressure] to bear in your particular work environment.” This might mean doing an audit of your company to ensure there’s not only diversity but equity among employees, including pay equity. “Social pressures in the last several years,” she said, “have led to an increase in the number of companies offering pay transparency.” She also added that the work of eradicating dysfunction could mean hiring people who need to move away from toxic environments, sticking up for those who don’t feel comfortable advocating for themselves, or supporting businesses that foster respectful and equitable work environments.

“Common decency,” said Eng, “requires that we make a commitment as a community to develop meaningful accountability structures that don’t have to be adjudicated in a legal system. Think about how you can repair dysfunction [in your workplace] immediately. It doesn’t have to be big, but it can become big.”

Jess Lander is a writer based in Napa Valley, California, who covers wine, beer, food, and travel. Her work has appeared in Wine Enthusiast, Decanter, the San Francisco ChronicleAFAR, and other publications.

Read article on Seven Fifty Daily.

Meg Lewis