Ashley Christensen Restaurants

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Posted on September 15, 2020 Category: AC, Community

An Open Letter to Our Community

There is an important, heartbreaking conversation happening in our Raleigh restaurant and bar community about safety, which continues to evolve. On Sunday, there was a meeting where members of the workforce spoke up to hold business owners accountable for what has happened, and what we need to do moving forward. You can and should watch the recordings of the event at @ncsafetyalliance_raleigh on Instagram.

During the meeting, one of our former Poole’s employees, Kaylin Fulp, took the mic to share a traumatic experience she had while working at Poole’s 3 years ago. She later also posted her account on Instagram. 

We are moved by the bravery that Kaylin has shown coming forward, and are gutted to know of the hurt that she has experienced. We have asked for the opportunity to apologize to her directly, if she is open to it, for the harm that we caused her. 

As we think about how to move forward to help her heal (if we can) and prevent this kind of trauma from ever recurring again, we are struggling to reconcile our actions and how we could have done more for Kaylin, based on what we knew. 

Many of the details she shared about her experience this week are new information to us. We are trying to piece together the information that has been shared this week and the concerns that she shared with our HR director and manager in June of 2017, while she was employed at Poole’s Diner. 

During that time in 2017, Kaylin brought up concerns about instances of sexual harassment among kitchen employees at Poole’s through the use of vulgar language. We were not informed about any instances of sexual assault. Even now, we do not know the details of the assaults she has mentioned, including who perpetrated them. As more details about these experiences come to light, we are committed to investigating them and providing further follow up. 

We took action then based on the information we had at the time, and with the intent of addressing the issues on a systemic level and preserving her anonymity. We thought, through feedback we received at the time, that she felt supported and was satisfied with how her concerns were handled. 

It is clear now, based on her recent accounts on Instagram and in person at the NC Safety Alliance meet up on Sunday, that she did not feel that way. We understand now that our actions did not go far enough as a response to sexual assault, bullying, and retaliation. 

However, we didn’t realize that’s what we were dealing with. The information shared with the four people involved (directly with a manager and HR director, and via written documentation of those meetings to Kaitlyn and Ashley), assault or any kind of physical touching was not mentioned. Bullying or retaliation was not mentioned. Not at the time of the first report; not in the follow up report; not in any check in conversations with the manager she first confided in; not in Kaylin’s exit interview when she left the company (on what we thought were good terms). If any report of this instances had come to our attention, our actions would have been very different, and would have resulted in termination of the perpetrator(s). 

We know that “we didn’t know” is not an excuse. We know that “we’re sorry” is too little, and too late. What we’ve outlined above should not be used to discredit Kaylin’s account, because we believe her, and she is right to hold us accountable. In fact, the very reality that this was a surprise to us underscores the failings of the policies and practices we had at the time. The weight of disclosure for survivors is heavy enough, and we understand now that we put too much burden on Kaylin to point out what we should’ve known and acted on with more specific force. 

We took action to make sweeping change toward addressing systemic problems of toxicity; now we see that we were more focused on the bigger system than the individual, and our actions to help had unintended and incredibly damaging consequences. 

That is on us. We take accountability for that. We made a grave mistake, and we will not let it happen again. 

How, specifically: We have taken several steps since the time that Kaylin was employed at Poole’s, which are outlined below. Many of these changes have created checks and balances that help us address the overall cultural weaknesses that existed previously. We also have a list of actions we are working toward.

But one immediate change we will make as a direct consequence of this week’s revelations is in regard to our reporting procedure. To bolster our existing reporting protocols, we have been talking with a local sexual trauma resource organization and intend to train our teams that they can reach out to this organization as an additional path for disclosing a workplace incident of harassment or assault, if for any reason an employee doesn’t feel comfortable doing so through our internal issue resolution procedure. 

We hope this does two things: 1) it provides outside accountability from trained professionals for our organization to handle these incidents from a “survivor-first” perspective as much as possible 2) it provides no-strings-attached support to the survivor in navigating the process of how the issue is handled at work.

Additionally, it has never been our intention to silence Kaylin, or to sweep her experience of trauma under the rug. We were, quite frankly, devastated to learn that that is her truth, because it couldn’t be further from our truth or our intentions. But, given her experience, we understand her perspective.

Here’s ours: We respect and appreciate Kaylin so much for what she did when she came forward, and how she helped us and our company grow to be better. We are devastated that it came at such great personal cost to her—it shouldn’t have had to. The trauma she experienced while working at Poole’s is not her fault. We are deeply regretful that we failed Kaylin during her employment with our company. We are so sorry. 

We hope there is power and healing for her in knowing that her experience forever changed how we operate and has contributed to keeping countless other workers safe. And now, with the new information we have learned this week about that time, we know we have more work to do and will continue to do it. 

When she came forward about vulgar language and sexual harassment, it prompted a number of actions that started 3 years ago and continue today. It is work that we have committed to as a practice, and we will be continuing to evolve for as long as we are in business. Here are the steps we’ve taken. All of the systems are undergoing a review of constant refining and review.

Actions since 2017

• We had meetings with the entire team—first at Poole’s, and later, the entire company where we did trainings and reset expectations with more nuance about what is and is not acceptable. We had multiple make up meetings for those who weren’t able to attend the first meetings. We hired translators to translate the content of those meetings for our Spanish-speaking staff. [2017] 

• We set a new baseline (and have continued to restate it in meetings since then) that it’s not enough to treat your team mates with kindness—you also have the responsibility as an employee at ACR to speak up if you witness something that is not in keeping with our culture standards. This is one of the most important things that we try to instill in every employee, whether tenured or brand new. [ongoing] 

• Any time we invite a visiting guest chef, sommelier, or bartender into the restaurants for an event, we send a letter to them beforehand outlining expectations and our standards of safe workplace culture. We continue to update this letter as we add to our expectations and definitions of what it means to be safe at work for ALL employees. [2017]

• We re-focused our review process, which includes an anonymous 360° feedback survey sent to a random sampling of other employees. We added a question specifically asking for feedback ranking the employee on workplace safety. We rededicated ourselves to keeping up with reviews for all staff members in a timely fashion. [2018]

• Retraining managers on onboarding, including how to go through the employee handbook with new hires and how to outline in detail the policies on reporting and expectations of behavior, including what will not be tolerated.

• We began to include questions about sexual harassment training in perspective management interviews. [2019]

• We created guidelines for handling inappropriate guests, and endowed managers with the authority to kick out (or permanently ban, based on the situation) any guests that makes an employee feel unsafe. [2018]

• We developed required monthly all-manager meetings for both senior leadership and assistant leadership with curriculum that focused on giving feedback, having regular one-on-ones with staff, accountability, and more. [2018]

• We have eliminated post-shift free alcoholic beverages (known as "shifties" for employees from all of our restaurants. We want to remove anything that lowers inhibitions in the workplace. [2020]

• We adjusted our annual staff party to take place earlier in the day, and tried to add activities that weren’t alcohol-centric to our agenda. [2018]

• We created a policy that a supervisor is not permitted to be in a sexual relationship with a subordinate (one of them must leave the company, or, when possible, transfer to a different location). Any relationship between two co-workers must be reported to the director team. [2019]

• We added an employee assistance program as a benefit for all employees, which includes 3 free counseling sessions and other mental health tools. [2019]

• We opened our latest restaurant, Poole’side Pies, with a compensation model that pays service staff a higher hourly wage and pools tips among all employees (service and kitchen). We have learned through conversations with experts that the traditional tipping model in restaurants is deeply linked with increased reports of sexual harassment. [2019]

Here’s what we are working on now: 

• Changing our compensation model to a One Fair Wage model, in which service staff are tipped higher hourly wage and tips are pooled among all employees (service and kitchen). We have learned through conversations with experts that the traditional tipping model in restaurants is deeply linked with increased reports of sexual harassment. [ongoing]

• Added flex paid sick leave for all employees, including part time and hourly [May 2020]

• Arranging for trauma counselors and other mental health professionals to attend recurring pre shift meetings. [August 2020]

• Building a network of EXTERNAL resources for our employees to connect with in the event that they don’t feel safe reporting internally; these partner organizations will also accompany an employee to a meeting with us, to support them if desired. [ongoing]

• Creating an anonymous feedback forum for employees who don’t feel comfortable coming forward. [ongoing]

What we are working on for the future: 

• Post resource hotlines in visible places at our bar, Fox [upon reopening] 

• Bystander intervention training for all staff (in Spanish and English) [2021]

• De-escalation training for all service staff members (in Spanish and English) [late 2020]

• Annual “recertification” program for managers on sexual harassment/assault training (going through the training every year), similar to what is required by law in California, Illinois, Maine, Delaware, New York, and Connecticut. We also plan to push for this requirement to become law in North Carolina. 

• Anonymous surveys for our staff to provide feedback and “grade” how well these policies and their implementations are actually working.

This list of bullets doesn’t accurately convey the human element of this work. It has been hard. We have had turnover as we’ve realized that not all managers and employees were up to this work. We have been disappointed, by others and ourselves, as we continue to move through—attempting to do better, making mistakes, and then trying again next time. 

But it has also become the most important part of our jobs. We are grateful to the individuals of our organization who have committed to the work, too. We are also grateful to the many individuals of the community who are speaking up now, coming forward to demand a better way. We are learning from your stories, and they are shaping our path forward. It is our greatest goal to be a partner to you in this evolution. 

Our community has all lost so much through these last few months. The future is uncertain, and we can’t predict what we’ll be coming back to when all of this dust settles. 

All we know is that we cannot go back to what we had before. The pandemic has laid bare just how problematic our industry has been, on every level. As we think about what comes next, we are committed to imagining and then building a new way—one that puts workers first (including before guests), and creates careers that are viable, professional, and have dignity. 

With humility and commitment,

Ashley Christensen and Kait Goalen

James Beard Award 2019Outstanding Chef James Beard Award 2014Best Chef: Southeast
2019 James Beard AwardOutstanding Chef 2014 James Beard AwardBest Chef: Southeast
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237 S. Wilmington St, Raleigh NC, 27601

[919] 322-0127, 322-0126, 322-0128 Respectively

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