It is no secret that Penn Dining has been failing its employees and the students they serve. Within a span of a month, students were made aware of two significant deficits. First, the mistreatment of workers at Falk Dining Hall, and second, the 100 health code violations across dining locations on campus. While we have received a statement from Penn addressing the health code violations, there has been no communication regarding Penn’s relationship with its dining hall employees. Penn's unwillingness to acknowledge the concerns of its workers speaks volumes — and may explain some of the broader issues in the dining system.
While retail dining locations and Falk dining employees are contracted by Bon Appétit Management Company, a subsidiary of the multinational company Compass Group, the partnership is nonetheless contracted and overseen by Penn. The other major dining halls, however, are staffed by Penn-employed workers. As a direct employer, Penn has a responsibility for the treatment of their employees and the conditions in which they work. If these workers are dissatisfied, it is ultimately up to Penn to address their concerns.
At every major dining hall location, I asked workers to provide a statement regarding their employment relationship with Penn as well as their satisfaction with their job. All replied with a unanimous, yet unsurprising, response: they weren’t allowed to. Some also voiced fears of retribution for interviewing without guarantees of anonymity. This is a clear indication that there is more to Penn’s relationship with its employees occurring behind the kitchen doors.
I reached out to Penn Business Services Director of Communications and External Relations Barbara Lea-Kruger for a comment on whether worker satisfaction surveys are sent out to Penn Dining employees and whether information collected in the surveys would be disclosed. In her response, Lea-Kruger stated that Penn does not utilize surveys with its dining staff and Bon Appétit sends out an employee wide survey only once every 2 years. However, Lea-Kruger emphasized that Penn utilizes an “open door policy” allowing employees to voice their concerns through direct discussion with management.
An open door policy is not enough.
The Harvard Business Review reports that managers who hold the belief that implementing an open door policy would encourage employees to speak up, are often unaware that their employees remain silent. In fact, 42% of employees reported withholding information when either they have nothing to gain or something to lose. While an employee may be able to report a problem because of an open door policy, this doesn’t mean there is a system in place to work towards a solution. If they don't believe their concerns will be addressed or that their feedback will be acted upon, they may see little point in speaking up.
Many people are quick to blame the workers themselves for the dining hall issues recently brought to light as they are the front line of the dining halls. However, with the lack of feedback from their dining employees, limited scope of the surveys, and lack of transparency, we cannot forget Penn’s role behind the scenes.
Yes, assessing job satisfaction is hard. But the absence of such an assessment is even worse. Regular feedback could improve the workplace culture, increase employee engagement, and identify issues, like the recent health code violations, before they become major problems.
Penn must issue a university-wide statement outlining how it will improve conditions for dining hall workers — starting with utilizing anonymous worker satisfaction surveys. It is imperative that this information is publicized because this issue affects our entire community.
It is important to remember that an employer’s worth is not in its flaws, but in how it addresses and resolves them. Penn, prove to us that you are an ethical and responsible employer. Show us that your workers are satisfied. Take meaningful action towards that goal. It is only in your best interest. If not, time reveals all.
LIALA SOFI is a College second year from Roanoke, Va. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.