Why Aren’t Bar Pros Returning to Work? A Lack of Empathy.


As bars and restaurants start to reopen, business owners face staffing difficulties. “I couldn’t find people to hire,” Camila Ramos, an owner of Miami’s All Day restaurant, told The New York Times in April. Last month, a Bloomberg article reported that more than 50% of U.S. hospitality professionals don’t plan to return to their old jobs.

Why is it so hard to entice workers to come back?

In addition to pressing issues like health risks, low pay and lack of benefits, some hospitality professionals hesitate to return to their old jobs due to a dearth of empathy in the field.

“As [front-of-house] employees, we’re asked to be empathetic towards our guests,” says Ben Wald, head of bar programming at Yuco. “So, to turn around and not have that same level of empathy from ownership or management is just unacceptable, especially now.”

Wald left a corporate bartending job because he developed an unhealthy relationship with alcohol to cope with his toxic work environment. He says he was once berated for requesting time off too far in advance, had to wait until the week before his requested dates to find out if he could take off and was blamed for bar issues beyond his role while away.

This experience shaped how he approaches job prospects.

“When I did look for a new job, I asked [prospective employers] about the importance of work-life balance, how far out schedules would be released, the timeline for time-off approval and goals for professional development,” says Wald.

Ben Wald bartender Yuco
Ben Wald, bartender, YUCO, New York City / Photo by Lawrence Whitten

Alex Jump currently works in hospitality, and has endured similar situations.

“I was a bar manager in my early 20s, and there was a sudden death in my family that required me going out of town for a week,” says Jump, now the head bartender of Death & Co Denver and host of the podcast Focus on Health. “When I returned from the trip, the owner of the restaurant sat me down and told me that my actions were not representative of a person in mourning, and that my trip with my family had burdened everyone else at the restaurant.

“Had this owner empathized with what my family was experiencing and how we chose to mourn this loss, I doubt that this conversation would have occurred at all,” says Jump.

Would changing workplace dynamics mitigate hospitality staffing shortages? While better salaries and benefits are absolutely vital, some researchers, mental health professionals and hospitality workers believe empathy could create a more sustainable industry.

Understanding Empathy

Carl Rogers, psychologist and author of Client-Centered Therapy (1951) and On Becoming a Person (1961), described empathy as viewing the world through other people’s eyes, not viewing your world reflected in their eyes.

To be empathic, Rogers wrote, you have to be sincerely curious about those around you. The term is often confused with sympathy, which involves being moved by or in tune with another person’s experiences. Empathy, on the other hand, requires deep, genuine emotional connections.

While better salaries and benefits are absolutely vital, some believe empathy could create a more sustainable industry.

It has become a corporate buzzword, too.

“Businesses have latched to the word because they are aware that it is a human need and capacity that is necessary for a functioning business and society,” says Dr. Helen Riess, founder and CEO of Empathetics Inc. She’s also an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of The Empathy Effect.

“The biggest misinterpretation of empathy is that people often think it means giving in to everything people say they want, rather than understanding what they really want and need,” she says.

Businessolver, an SaaS-based benefits technology provider, surveys CEOs, human resource professionals and other employees across six industries and four generations for its annual State of Workplace Empathy Study.

The 2021 results show that, in the nearly 2,000 survey participants, only one in four employees believes their organization is sufficiently empathetic.

Hierarchical distinctions in perceptions abound in the study as well. Only 58% of employees believe their employer openly discusses mental health issues, while 86% of CEOs believe they do.

Empathy at the Bar

Bars can have complicated group dynamics. To provide a positive experience while serving food and drinks, the staff interacts with each other and their guests. Meanwhile, guests interact with the staff and, sometimes, other guests.

In a healthy environment, empathy will be at the core of all this communication, whether you’re a food runner, general manager, first-time guest or bar regular.

The tone is typically set from the top down.

“Being empathetic as a leader, in my opinion, creates a culture of understanding and ‘safe spaces’ for staff,” says Taylor Duggan, beverage director for New Jersey-based Skopos Hospitality Group. “To me, it helps us really get to the root cause of why a team member may or may not be performing up to expectations and allows us to tackle that cause in a way that is effective and re-creatable.”

She uses the example of a manager who sees a messy bar during service, and speaks to the bartender constructively after closing.

“Fixing something during service is reactionary, and you could unintentionally approach the situation negatively,” says Duggan.

She suggests posing compassionate questions, such as what can we do to make you a cleaner worker? Are you feeling overwhelmed during service? If so, why? Could we offer you additional or different training to help you feel less overwhelmed?

With guests, Duggan believes empathy means engaging everyone with an open mind.

“It’s about having a conversation to make a guest feel safe and welcome and finding a way to enhance their experience for that moment,” says Duggan. “You can’t do that without listening to their needs which are expressed both in their words and actions.”

Scenarios that require empathy in bars abound. A guest might worry about another group’s lack of respect for mask mandates, or a bartender might struggle to keep up while their teammates work quickly. Each situation can escalate into arguments, or they can be resolved amicably if all practice empathy.

A manager could reassign one bartender to a slower shift, or offer them additional training. They might also step in to request politely that a guest wear a mask on behalf of the establishment.

Empathy and Success

There are certain roadblocks for even the most well-intentioned bargoers or hospitality professionals to successfully practice empathy.

“Research shows that empathy is highest for people who are most like ourselves… for people who have suffered in similar ways, and for people who share a common goal,” says Riess.

However, empathy and compassion can be learned. They’re acquired skills, not inherited traits, writes Claire Cain Miller in The New York Times. “There are steps people can take to acknowledge their biases and to move beyond their own worldviews to try to understand those held by other people.”

Hunt and Alpine Club bar Maine
Hunt + Alpine Club, Portland, Maine / Photo by Peter Frank Edwards

At the bar, when guests and staff feel seen and actively listened to, they almost immediately share a deeper, more valuable set of information with everyone around them. Bar managers and other leaders must champion this practice to ensure it’s implemented daily, and to hire and train staff accordingly.

“Empathic leaders will know what affects the heartbeat of their organizations,” says Riess. “It is one of the most important traits of great leaders, and also one of the hardest to find.”

She believes bar owners and operators must ask the right questions during the interview process to determine whether potential managers will create compassionate workplaces.

“Asking the person how they would respond to some typical conflict that arises in the bar industry with coworkers, patrons and outside authorities will provide some insight into whether they are able to take the perspective of others, or whether they are quick to form judgments, become defensive, or have a lack of curiosity about what may be going on for the other person,” says Riess.

She says that good leaders will inspire their staff by addressing what matters to them and creating workplaces that make people feel like they matter and belong to something important.

“Listen to your staff, and most importantly, actively listen, rather than listening while also thinking of responses to their comments,” says Jump. “Creating this safe place for workers to feel value not only increases team morale, but also productivity.”

With empathic leaders at the helm, bars and restaurants can become safer, more sustainable workplaces. Many workers say that bars like Death & Co, Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, Smuggler’s Cove, and those within Skopos Hospitality Group have created positive environments for them to prosper and succeed. It’s a sign of growth in an industry struggling to re-emerge and evolve.