Survey paints painful picture of racial equality

A new report suggests an undercurrent of racial bias runs through hospitality organisations leaving much work to do. Nick Hughes reports.

A new survey that places in sharp focus the racism and inequality that still exists within the hospitality sector should make for uncomfortable reading for industry leaders.

The Inside Hospitality survey, by not-for-profit Be Inclusive Hospitality, provides a snapshot of the experiences of a total of almost 400 hospitality professionals from black, Asian, ethnic minority and white groups. For all the good intentions of many employers, the results should give everyone that works in the sector cause to reflect on just how diverse and inclusive it really is.

Most disturbingly, high proportions of professionals from black (53%), Asian (68%) and mixed ethnic groups (57%) report experiencing racism in the workplace either individually or at a company level. These include openly racist language, use of stereotypes and racist jokes, as well as racial slurs, generalisations, judgments and bullying. Respondents also report being treated differently, ignored or not being taken seriously.

Beyond this explicit racism, the survey points to a degree of cognitive dissonance among white employees when it comes to the existence of workplace bias. While a significant proportion of white employees are concerned about the impact of racism in their workplace (36%) or have witnessed or experienced it (38%), very few (7%) believe their company shows bias in the opportunities it offers to its employees. This compares with 40% of Asian professionals, 26% from mixed ethnic groups and 21% of black ethnicity. “More often than not if people don't experience something personally they don't believe it's a problem that exists,” explains Lorraine Copes, founder of Be Inclusive Hospitality and an experienced hospitality professional with businesses like Shake Shack and Corbin & King.

In reality, what the survey suggests is that an undercurrent of racial bias – conscious or otherwise – runs through organisations. Professionals surveyed from black, Asian and ethnic minority groups report feeling less supported in their career goals and progression than white colleagues, and less valued at work.

While over half of white hospitality professionals surveyed (53%) feel strongly that they are comfortable being themselves at work, only 38% of black, 25% of Asian and 20% of professionals from mixed ethnic groups feel the same. The survey also finds fewer non-white employees believe their employer cares about their wellbeing.

Copes founded Be Inclusive Hospitality (previously known as BAME in Hospitality) in part to champion the need for greater representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic professionals in managerial and director-level positions.

Its first deep dive into the experiences of hospitality professionals pertaining to race, bias, training and career progression is significant because in a technical sense hospitality does not have a diversity problem. UK census data quoted in the report shows 12.9% of the UK population are classified as being from minority ethnic groups but comprise 17% of the hospitality workforce.

The problem, says Copes, relates to “where that diversity sits and has consistently sat within the sector”. The report highlights a 2020 Resolution Foundation study that found white professionals are proportionally more likely to be in higher-paying roles than black, Asian and ethnic minority professionals, despite a larger proportion of non-white professionals holding degrees.

Unacceptable racism

Copes says overt examples of racism in the workplace, such as those experienced by survey respondents, are extremely concerning. “At a base level discrimination should not be acceptable in the workplace. Ultimately, when you leave your home every morning to go and earn a living, to have to put up with racism in the workplace is hugely alarming in itself.”

Among the recommendations contained within the report is that organisations should have a zero tolerance approach to racism and discrimination with clear lines of reporting should employees experience racism within the workplace.

Another recommendation is that businesses should measure and monitor diversity statistics and set clear targets for indicators such as pay gaps, recruitment, promotion and retention. Sodexo recently took a leadership position by publishing the relative pay of people in different ethnic groups that showed a mean ethnicity pay gap of 5%. Copes says this kind of transparency is a step in the right direction: “Whenever you publicly release any internal statistic […] there becomes accountability.”

It is, however, an exception that proves the general rule that hospitality businesses have been far more progressive in setting targets for gender pay and representation than they have been for race – helped in part by mandatory government requirements to publish gender pay gaps.

Beyond education

There is a call in the report too for greater emphasis on workplace education in the form of workshops, training and resources that support learning for all employees on race literacy, ethnicity and anti-racism.

While not downplaying the importance of education, Copes makes the point that educating leaders is not sufficient in itself. The experiences of marginalised communities must also be acknowledged and initiatives put in place that support levelling the playing field. “I think sometimes the focus has been disproportionately on education and knowledge and training of leaders in the sector but that alone is not going to close the gap.” She says to do so requires “a holistic approach, including sponsorship, mentorship and tools that actively support the career development of those communities”.

Business engagement

As for the level of business engagement with issues around racial equality, Copes says it’s currently hard to gauge. “There's always a lot of digesting of information, a lot of internal conversations and agreeing the way forward because there's a fear of getting it wrong.” In many ways she feels this is the right approach: “I've seen a lot of organisations publicly talk about their initiatives without having really thought them through. They just want to be seen to be taking action.”

Ultimately, however, she believes real change must come at a cultural as well as a strategic level. “You can have all the strategies in the world but culture overpowers strategy every day. If that fundamentally isn’t fixed and addressed, then you will continue to have problems with delivering against any objective.”

Copes says she takes encouragement from the number of businesses that reach out to her organisation on a weekly basis to discuss how they can improve diversity and inclusivity within their own organisation. However the survey – which will become an annual undertaking – tells its own story. As Copes reflects: “It just reminds me how much work there is still to do.”

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