Deputy fashion editor Sinéad Mckeown explores the unsavoury truth about working in nightlife in Cork.

Sexual Assault and Harassment in Cork City Nightlife

TW: Discussion of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment

Earlier this year I launched a survey that was targeted towards employees of bars and nightclubs in Cork. The results show that many bars across the city are failing to train staff, from the security to the senior managers to the floor staff, on how to handle instances of sexual assault, not only by customers but by other staff members. In many places, there is no support system in place for staff who have struggled with these types of encounters. 

I conducted an interview with Dola Twomey who works in the Sexual Violence Centre Cork and was part of a team which put together a charter to help improve staff safety in the hospitality industry. This charter was picked up by the Department of Justice and will become part of the new legislation in 2024 that is set to be imposed on bars and nightclubs across Ireland. Dola discussed how it will work and the effect that it will have on employee well-being.

The ‘Zero-Tolerance Policy’:

66.7% of respondents said that they did not receive any training on how to handle situations of sexual assault or harassment. Those who said they did receive training gave the following descriptions;

“Go to the floor manager”

“I’m more important than the customer, and I don’t have to do anything that makes me uncomfortable. I also won’t get in trouble for standing up for myself”

“We had a 5-minute conversation about letting a supervisor know and if we felt more comfortable being relocated”

“I was informed of a straightforward zero-tolerance policy and the procedure for reporting the incident.”

“Go to security immediately”

I asked Dola Twomey her opinion on what is considered sexual assault and sexual harassment training and whether these descriptions qualified as such. Her response was as follows;

“This is not training and the problem is that there is no obligation for them to be trained nor is there anyone to provide it. However, we put together a charter that we wanted to be taken up as a voluntary code to be used by venues, with a view of bringing in training and support so that people would follow it. But thankfully the Department of Justice were already looking at doing something about this in conjunction with the licensing laws. What we put together is more than training. Every venue is going to be different yet the same. Each venue and even different parts in the same venue need to be looked at on its own basis. It’ll be like doing a Health and Safety Audit. We’ll be  working from the ground up so it’s not ‘Here’s the list, this is what you do’. It’s about actually looking at ‘what you do, where do you think things can go wrong, how do you work out what to do if…’. It’s similar to a Risk Assessment and that’s always going to be the first step. Anything that’s generic is not going to work. What works for a country bar is not going to be the same as what’s needed for a nightclub in the city.”

The New Legislation & How it Works:

44.5% of respondents rated the security’s response as 3 or below in relation to instances of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

“As a female, my male colleagues supported me but I feel my male colleagues received little support when sexually assaulted by women. But management encouraged female door staff to flirt with men when they were asked to leave”

“When reported, the bouncers would escort the perpetrators out of the club. Issues arise if the perpetrators are staff members.”

“Security was present in all areas, they were sometimes overzealous with men and coddled women (even if they were aggressive/abusive towards staff).”

“Members of management were witnesses and were told of cases of sexual assault and refused to do anything”

I asked Dola what options staff who feel as though they can’t quit or as though they won’t be able to get a job elsewhere have and how this new legislation could help them.

“You can look at this as a Rights Basis, you have a right to be treated properly, you have a right not to be harassed, you have a right to a lot of  things. But, in a sense, you only have the rights you can hold onto. It’s a big ask for somebody to start making a formal complaint, to go through that whole process. People need to work, they need to earn money, they’re probably students, and it’s quite a hill to climb. I would love to see a form of anonymous reporting and that each venue would have to report on the number of anonymous complaints to the Gardaí. When you’re working closely with people it can be difficult to put your name on a complaint like this, especially if it’s the managers or owners who are the problem. The whole environment is toxic and it’s toxic from the top down because it’s all about the tills. So the idea behind the charter is not just that you tick a box but that you have to implement it and the way it comes into play is that when they go to renew their licence. If they can’t show that they’ve been compliant, they will lose major time and possibly their licence.”

Power Play:

54% of those who raised their concerns with management were not satisfied with the result.

“The behaviour was deemed ‘normal’ for a staff member of a club”

“It took weeks for them to bar the men and since I’ve left the company they’ve been allowed back”

“I was told not to make a big deal about it or I was scolded for not bringing it up sooner, two very contrasting responses”

“I have heard many stories of management and higher staff sexually assaulting staff. I was lucky that it had not reached me during my time with the company, though only a week after I left my female coworker was sexually assaulted by the owner. She had previously been assaulted by a manager of another sister bar.”

“If you weren’t flirty with management you wouldn’t be assigned the nicer spots. [One of the places] I worked was notorious for encouraging violence while I preferred working with [a different company] once two of the managers left.”

“One of the company directors used to bring 18/19 year old back to theirs for afters and get them really drunk, it made everyone uncomfortable and it was never dealt with”

“It was swept under the rug”

61.5% of respondents said that there were instances with other staff members that made them feel unsupported and were not handled properly by management. 

“One of the other supervisors used to make the young lads extremely uncomfortable. I reported it to my manager and he said he didn’t have the courage to say it to her because it was too uncomfortable”

“Female floor staff tend to be hassled by drunk male patrons”

“A manager sexually assaulted an employee”

16.7% said that they did not feel safe at work and a further 22.2% were unsure about their safety.

“I didn’t know how to speak up or who to speak to. What constitutes harassment and lads being lads?”

“Inebriated management using power to make us stay in their company for long periods of time”

There is one company in the city that requires its staff to sign an NDA. However, the NDA only protects industry secrets. It doesn’t protect the company against claims of  illegal activity, such as sexual harassment or sexual assault. I asked Dola what are the psychological effects on young people who are asked the sign an NDA in an environment that has some of the most serious reports of sexual assault and harassment towards its staff.

“It’s power play. What the industry is doing is getting cheap labour and making them feel as though they’re lucky to have a job when in actual fact right now, businesses are crying out for people. Hospitality and retail are desperate for workers and yet people are afraid to lose their job. And it’s not that they’re afraid to lose just their job but their reference and reputation as a worker. It’s a small world and they’re only a few big employers.”

Many of the respondents raised issues regarding the behaviour of management in these industries so I asked Dola if it is the managers who have failed in their responsibility yet she disagreed with this assessment stating;

“I think things start from the top down. They can be changed from the bottom-up but they start from the top down and an owner’s unspoken brief to a manager is ‘maximise my profits, minimise my losses, minimise my exposure’. That does not mean ‘treat the staff well, treat the customers well, let’s have an ethical, well-run business’. So if an owner isn’t consciously running his business in that way what can a manager do? The owners pick the managers. They’re going to pick the managers that will do the job that they want them to do and staff welfare would not be high on the agenda, it wouldn’t be on the agenda at all. They don’t seem to care about staff turnover, which is strange as a business model but they don’t. They don’t want anybody lipping, they just want you to come in, do your job and go. They don’t care what you’re subjected to either internally or by the punters nor do they care about the experience of the punters. It’s almost like mini jungles all over the place and that’s why this change is going to be amazing. There’s no other way for it to happen.”

Security; The Problem or the Solution?

“90% of issues women report are true. I do think a man should be monitored, and definitely removed from the premises if necessary. Even if they’re a guard, friends with the owner etc. A lot of bars neglect kicking someone out if they’re friends with the owner, [these are] horrible places to work as security”

“There could be more training to help deal with customers who face sexual assault”

“It’s so common to be close with other staff members behind the bar but one guy used to constantly touch my waist and hips whilst trying to move around me. It used to irritate me so much. Also, during staff nights some staff members would act very inappropriately towards me and the other female staff members. There were many women working there that felt uncomfortable and this only got worse with time”

“Many women feel too comfortable making risqué comments and touching floor/bar staff”

On the security side, I asked Dola whether more female security would make a difference or whether a stricter ‘No Tolerance Policy’ is needed.

“I think more female security is a good idea. There’s also a very good chance that females are more aware of things that happen and the things that can happen to them. Every female lives with the knowledge of ‘Anything can happen at any time’. Guys don’t know that. They don’t see problems where we would because they’re not the things they have to be afraid of, statistically or otherwise. So they actually don’t see it. That’s not to say that a good male security guard can’t be every bit as good as a good female security guard but I think the mixture is good because I think it makes people feel like they have choices. Security are a whole different issue of course, essentially they are both a huge part of the problem and a huge part of the solution. The problem has always been about the power that they actually have. They have the power to leave somebody in, they have the power to kick somebody out. The good guys are always going to be great but the others are going to be absolutely awful but the security company or whoever is on duty is going to be responsible for the venue. So they all need to get their act together on this. The security is there to enforce the venue’s policies which makes them part of the ‘staff’ and if the policies aren’t there then they don’t need to enforce them.”

“They decide on whim whether or not to let somebody in. Let’s say a group of friends go out but they won’t leave one in because they just feel like it. Now, there’s one outside, isolated. They won’t leave her in to tell her friends, her phone might be down and what you’re left with is someone very vulnerable and very isolated outside. It’s so common and it’s power play. There are a lot of predators who are literally waiting outside watching this happen. If you think about if you’re into power and control it’s the place to be. It has to boil down to individuals who are harmed, who need to be given some voice and that voice, those many voices, can have an impact on whether somebody can continue to hold their licence or not.”

While the legal system is catching up and recognising that there’s a need to improve staff safety in nightlife work there remains a stream of denial by the industry and those who run Cork nightlife. I reached out to bars and nightclubs across the city to comment on what measures they’re taking ahead of this legislation to improve their response to issues of sexual assault and harassment. None responded.