Opinion

Has Wahaca’s 'walk-out policy’ damaged years of positive hospitality jobs PR?

By Nicholas Robinson contact

- Last updated on GMT

MA managing editor Nicholas Robinson: 'do we have to work harder still to push the positives of hospitality careers?'
MA managing editor Nicholas Robinson: 'do we have to work harder still to push the positives of hospitality careers?'
A reputation can take years to build and a matter of minutes to destroy; a phrase that was sadly demonstrated this week.

Wahaca and potentially the hospitality sector’s reputation came under the microscope after former Camden council Labour leader Sarah Hayward tweeted her disgust at a Wahaca waiter having to foot the bill for a customer’s meal when they walked out without paying.

While much of the talk and analysis following the ordeal has been about the casual-dining chain’s policy itself, little thought has been given to what it could do to prospective job seekers considering a career in the hospitality trade.

It’s no secret pubs, bars and restaurants are facing a struggle to recruit workers into the sector, which is often demonised for having long hours and low pay.

There are still many misconceptions out there about how tough it is to work in the trade. However, as with most arguments, there are two sides to this story too. No one considers the vast amount of skills you can rack up by working in hospitality.

Nor do outsiders consider the money that can be made in hospitality – especially in the areas of management, head office, area management, etc. 

Career fears

Worryingly, the negative perception of the trade runs into the younger generations​ too, with recent research by Get My First Job and apprenticeship provider HIT Training claiming more than half of 16 to 20-year-olds would not consider a career in the sector.

Meanwhile, since the Brexit vote more than two years ago, we’ve struggled to recruit more than ever, with workers from continental Europe, who have historically filled vital roles in our trade, heading back home or to other countries to work.

The hospitality sector in this country accounts for 3.2m jobs, contributing over £130bn to the economy. It is the third largest employer in the UK, bigger than the car, drugs and aeronautical industries combined.

But we seem to constantly struggle to push our messages of positivity out there. We have a severe skills shortage of over 60,000 people a year, according to figures published by the UKHospitality association.

So, it really doesn’t help our case when a chain with a national presence and, therefore, responsibility to represent the sector in the best way, potentially sets all our positive PR back several years with an unfair and potentially illegal policy – see our story here​.

In what other sector would it be acceptable to charge staff for a customer walking out without paying?

There are some (rare) circumstances in which this could be acceptable in hospitality, for instance, if the customer was purposefully neglected by the member of staff.

Nothing short of tragic

That said, why did the member of staff neglect the customer – was it down to poor training or under staffing?

It is likely this incident will make potential candidates for jobs in our amazing, versatile and exciting sector think harder before applying. Which is nothing short of tragic.

So, now we will have to work ever harder to reverse the damage of this avoidable incident, which was apparently caused by an “internal communications issue” within Wahaca.

The new policy, though, still isn’t good enough. Wahaca has said if a customer walks out without paying, the waiter will be investigated to ascertain whether they were complicit.

We want staff to be accountable, but it doesn’t strike me as right to threaten them with the risk of losing out on their salary if something didn’t go quite right in a business where many other factors can play a part in an incident.

Related topics: Training

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