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Interview: Delivering on diversity

The hospitality sector has struggled to tackle racial equality in the workplace, but Lorraine Copes is on a mission to redress the balance. Nick Hughes reports.

“Throughout my career, particularly since I became a senior business leader, when I look to my left and to my right there is never another person of colour in any decision making role.”

The lived experience of Lorraine Copes cuts right to the heart of how the hospitality sector, in common with every UK industry sector, has failed to adequately tackle the issue of racial equality in the workplace.

With 18 years’ experience leading procurement and supply chain teams at the likes of Elior, Shake Shack, Gordon Ramsay Restaurants and Corbin & King, Copes is one of the exceptions that proves the rule that people of a Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority (BAME) background are consistently denied the same opportunities for career progression as their white counterparts.

The issue is by no means unique to the hospitality industry. However, its service-oriented nature does amplify the divide between those carrying out low-level operational roles, where black people in particular are over-represented, and those in managerial and director-level positions. UK government data from 2018 found that 18% of black people were employed in caring, leisure and other service roles compared with just 5% employed as managers, directors and senior officials. By comparison, the figures for the white British group were 9% and 11% respectively.

Copes is on a mission to try and redress the balance within a sector she describes as “amazing” to work in. Last November, Copes established an informal network of BAME hospitality professionals on Instagram. Just seven months later, and despite the disruption caused by covid-19, BAME in Hospitality (since renamed to Be Inclusive Hospitality) was established as a fully-fledged social enterprise which now counts upwards of 350 members – consisting both of BAME professionals as well as “allies that champion the cause of racial equality”, in the words of Copes.

The organisation aims to drive progress under three pillars, Copes explains. The learning and development pillar will include sponsored learning initiatives and mentorship from industry figures such as Adebola Adeshina, chef proprietor at The Chubby Castor, Arbinder Singh Dugal, group executive chef at Madhu’s, and Copes herself. Events will bring people together to have “thought provoking and necessary conversations about race and equality within the sector”. And corporate partnerships will provide training, workshops and “a framework to help business leaders implement inclusive cultures”.

Copes is keen to point out that the hospitality sector is one that “prides itself on its diversity” but suggests that well-meaning efforts to promote it mask deeper structural inequalities. Companies, she says, shout about the “81 different nationalities” that work within their business “but what that does not tell us is the ethnic diversity among those nationalities and also where they sit within the business. When you look at junior head office and operational roles then that is where diversity sits,” Copes says, in reference to the lack of representation in senior roles.

Originally from the Midlands, Copes says she felt “compelled” to establish BAME in Hospitality having moved to London and seen how the city’s diverse food culture wasn’t mirrored within the hospitality sector she was part of. One of her aims is to expose (predominantly white) industry leaders to different narratives and perspectives whilst amplifying minority voices. This is illustrated in a recent virtual event the organisation hosted titled “The colour of wine”; black and Asian sommeliers were invited to talk about their experiences within the wine sector and pair wines with foods of their heritage. “We had people watch from all levels of business from CEOs to wine students,” says Copes. “Working in the sector for as long as I have I’ve never seen African or Caribbean food paired with premium wines.”

Educating sector leaders on issues of diversity and inclusion is an important part of the journey to greater equality, but Copes is clear that proper BAME representation “has to be a strategic business priority” in order to embed real, lasting change.

One thing that could help push ethnic diversity up the corporate agenda is to force companies to publish data on ethnic pay gaps in the same way they are now required to do for gender pay. This was a key recommendation of an independent government-backed review by Baroness McGregor-Smith in 2017. It urged the UK government to legislate for businesses to publish their ethnicity data by salary band as well as their long-term, aspirational diversity targets and report against their progress annually. The government under Theresa May subsequently consulted on the proposal. But almost two years since the consultation closed no response has been published.

Copes is strongly in favour of both mandatory reporting and targets: “There is no accountability if there is no visibility of the statistics. That would really shine a light on the true disparity [in pay] because at the moment there is a lot of guesswork.”

She goes on to make the important point that the acronym BAME is not universally liked by black and Asian people since it assumes homogeneity, adding that any data must drill down at a granular level into the realities facing people of different ethnicities. Indeed, the same 2018 government data suggested that Asian and Indian people were most likely to work in professional roles and were far more likely to work as managers, directors or senior officials than black people.

BAME in Hospitality is looking to fill some of the data gap by running its own survey to gain a truer understanding of the experiences of ethnic minority groups within the hospitality sector. “There have been studies conducted on women in the workplace to better inform [business] strategy and I’ve seen similar research conducted on LGBTQ people but there is nothing on the term BAME,” says Copes. “The reason why that is important is because the experience of a black woman within the workplace versus an Asian man is very different. Using the term in the way it has been, especially for the large corporates, leads to them have a BAME target which means there are often ethnicities that are left behind.”

Copes says she is aware of a lot of businesses beginning conversations with BAME employees following June’s Black Lives Matter protests, which originated in the US before quickly spreading across the world. BAME in Hospitality is keen to support businesses who are “serious about driving change” on an issue that Copes acknowledges can be difficult to confront in a workplace setting. “There are a number of issues: one being trust. But you’re also asking people to sit and talk openly about problems that they’ve encountered that have been traumatic.”

Although Black Lives Matter has prompted people around the world to wake up to the inequality faced by black people on a daily basis, Copes believes “only time will tell” whether it will provide the impetus for hospitality companies to interrogate their own record on diversity and take steps toward improving it. “Has it provided an awakening for some? Yes. Will everyone get on the vehicle of making this a top strategic priority? Not necessarily. It’s not a sprint nor something businesses are going to be able to drive immediate change in.”

But businesses can, and must, do better. It feels crass to think beyond the moral case for treating all employees equally regardless of their ethnicity, but if the economic case for diversity does need to be made it is there for all to see. In her report, McGregor-Smith cited estimates that the potential benefit to the UK economy from full representation of black and minority ethnic individuals across the labour market, through improved participation and progression, would total £24 billion a year, representing 1.3% of GDP.

Copes suggests that “people perform best when they feel comfortable and feel they can be their authentic selves”. For too long in hospitality, this hasn’t always been the case. As businesses recalibrate through a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted people from ethnic minorities, the moment to rebuild as a fairer more diverse industry must not be wasted.