“You’ll never guess to who you’re talkin’”: the PM, power, & those who serve

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Analysis by Carolyn Skelton.

“You’ll never guess to who you’re talkin’”:

During the unfolding of the story of the waitress, Amanda Bailey, whose ponytail was repeatedly pulled by John Key, I was continually reminded of two things: a line from a song, and past readings of research about sexual harassment of waitresses.  Both memories involve issues of inequality, abuse, power, exploitation of it, and the potential for the once powerless-abused to retaliate at a future date.

The line “you’ll never guess to who you’re talkin’” is from the song “Pirate Jenny”. The most memorable version of it is sung by Nina Simone, who loads the class politics with additional ones of US race relations.  A maid in a hotel, doing hard labour scrubbing floors, and treated as a powerless slave, is ordered about by the “gentlemen” who casually toss her tips. But these men, certain of their power and status, treat her as less than human, and are arrogantly unaware of her capabilities; her potential to turn the tables on them in the future. Scrubbing the floors, she bides her time and reflects “you’ll never guess to who you are talkin’”.

Waitresses, and other young female (and some male) hospitality workers, carry out their jobs in a context where they are particularly vulnerable to harassment. This is most usually about relations of power.  However, those who hold the balance of power today, maybe should consider that today’s waitress could be tomorrow’s lawyer, union activist, super-star, or cabinet minister.

Customer service & ‘third party’ harassment

While hospitality employers tend to have very good policies on staff-on-staff harassment, abuse by customers, usually labelled as “third party harassment”, tends to be overlooked or even tolerated. Recommendations from relevant research state that, in order to prevent third party sexual harassment in workplaces, the managers need to create a culture where it is considered unacceptable, and where there is zero tolerance of such behaviours. Furthermore, exploratory NZ research  by Beth Hannah Wauby (2012) indicates that, if such proactive measures don’t exist, front-line workers will make their own judgments about the limits of acceptable customer behaviour, and ways of responding to sexual harassment: some judge that a certain amount of flirting helps to keep customers sweet; others are averse to flirting; some will accept a certain amount of touching by customers, while others won’t;  some will make their discomfort known through their behaviour or statements to customers, while others keep their discomfort to themselves or try to laugh it off.

The “two-track” PM persona: playfully casual – ruthless power

The research also shows that when there is a power imbalance, harassment is most likely motivated by attempts to exercise power. (see for instance the chapter by Anne Maass, Mara Cadinu, and Silva Gald here: especially pages 348-52)

Some of Wauby’s waiting staff informants judged that older businessmen tended to behave as if they had the same kind of power over hospitality workers as in their own workplaces.  When an ill-behaved customer has the power and status of a Prime Minister, the power imbalance is intense.

John Key’s apology to Amanda Bailey seems insincere in the face of his attempts to minimise the offense by inappropriately calling it “casual” behaviour: mostly people do not harass, torment and abuse people while being casual and playful. Furthermore, when he went to Bailey’s workplace flanked by his security detail, his PM status is clearly visible, as convincingly argued by Puddlegum in his analysis of the PM’s power plays.

In other words, Key’s humour was – and, in fact, often is when you observe it closely – an exercise in power. It either serves to belittle others (e.g., the ‘gay shirt’ ‘humour’) or enhance his status and ensure he remains at the centre of attention.

Puddleglum refers to the two track approach exposed in Nicky Hager’s book, Dirty Politics: the PM presents a smiling friendly face to the public, while a more ruthless, often nasty, approach is conducted away from the most public arenas, or by those somewhat publicly distanced from the PM.

There has been an attempt to minimise Key’s behaviour by portraying it as part of his endearing, implied egalitarian, down-to-earth, playfully “casual” approach. However, this much publicised, even mythologised, Key persona, only tells half the story. Key also is a highly competitive individual, who does not like to lose, who does not easily accept criticism, and who enjoys being top dog.

Simon Wilson explains the less well published side of Key’s persona: one evident in his ruthlessly combative performance in the House:

“He loves this stuff. The cut and thrust, the shouting and name calling, the opportunity to ridicule. Key loves getting the better of his opponents on the strength of his own wit. Most people here love doing that, although few are as good at it as he is.

Honest John Metro Mag
Photo with Simon Wilson’s “Honest John” article in metro Magazine Metro Mag

In his response to critical questions about his over-sight of the SIS in relation to Dirty Politcs, Key used his usual response to criticisms: shrugging them off as being wrong, inconsequential or irrelevant:

This is a clear abuse of power by the two offices (the SIS and the Prime Minister’s), and Key has responsibility for them both.

His response? Nothing to see here. Despite what happened, the report does not explicitly implicate Key in any wrongdoing, and he’s good with that.

[…]

Key is the showman, playing to his own MPs, thrilling to the fact of having a supportive audience. He loves performing.

For those of us who regularly watch question time, Key often seems well suited to the role of schoolyard bully:

To Key, Question Time is a backyard game. The boy bubbles out of him. Powerful adults usually suppress their inner child — it’s supposedly a mark of maturity. But Key’s maturity isn’t at stake, and he knows that flashes of childlike pleasure link him to the rest of us. We all like ice creams.

In a 2008 NZ Herald article “In Search of John Key”, he is shown to be someone from an early age driven to achieve wealth and power: A 2010 article by Colin James also demonstrates something of the more ruthless side of John Key. James reports that Key sees politics as being like finance trading and says:

 “Question time [in Parliament] is exactly like the trading floor. It’s about theatre, intimidating opponents and enthusing your supporters.”

“… Beneath that agreeable, affable exterior is steely interior. You don’t make $40 million by just being Mr Nice Guy.
But Key is nice guy. “

Hospitality management & third party harassment policies

Ultimately, when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, the employers are responsible for limiting and managing harassment of employees by customers.  Research shows that there are steps they can take to minimise the risks: staff training, clear boundaries to staff and customers of what is acceptable behaviour, zero tolerance of harassment, visible support from managers, regular monitoring of workers’ experiences, a willingness to criticise or ban customers who breach those boundaries, and ensuring that workers feel comfortable about reporting harassment to their managers.

The Restaurant Association of NZ has strong guidelines for policies on sexual harassment:

Employers are obliged to create a safe and secure working environment for their employees…

However, they only focus on harassment from co-workers.  The only mention of customers is with respect to workers duties to please customers.

It is not surprising that Amanda Bailey’s employers tried to cover their arses with a (pretty clumsy) rear guard action with respect to the Rachel Glucina article.

But by then, it was too late, and their failure to ensure a safe workplace for their young workers was compounded by the lack of any expressions of concern for the harassment that Bailey had experienced.

This should, serve as a cautionary tale for café and restaurant owners and managers, as well as for those managing other kinds of customer service workers. A priority should be to ensure the safety of their workers, and not to let that responsibility be overshadowed by temptations to bask in the reflected glory of some high profile customers’ power and social status.

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Carolyn is committed to economic and social justice. She has researched and taught in film, TV and media studies, sociology and gender studies. Carolyn is actively interested in local history, and its impact on the present and future. Carolyn currently works part time as a research librarian in Auckland Libraries, which is part of Auckland Council. The views, analysis, and opinions she expresses on this site are her own, and not those of Auckland Council.

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