EDITOR'S NOTE: Studies have shown repeatedly that the hospitality industry lags when it comes to opportunities for minorities. Here, UNLV William F. Harrah College of Hospitality professor and researcher Anthony Gatling lays out recommendations for steps the industry can take at this moment of reorganization around the pandemic to become more inclusive.

LAS VEGAS — After the worldwide protests that erupted over the killing of George Floyd, it is hard for me to imagine any person, company, or institution, continuing to discount the role that racism plays in our society. People all over are demanding an end to racial discrimination that is embedded in our social systems. 

In hospitality, emerging research has shined light on the perception of discrimination among industry workers, but personally, it comes as no surprise to me. I quit my $200,000 senior-level job in 2011 after 23 years in the restaurant industry because I could no longer tolerate the discrimination I was experiencing. Working my way up from the position of food server to senior director of operations took twice as much time as it took my white peers who had similar performance results and far less education.

In a recent study published in the International Journal of Hospitality Management, my co-authors, assistant professor Cass Shum and undergraduate student Jaimi Garlington, and I found that the experience of racial discrimination had a negative effect on the level of career satisfaction among minority students working in the hospitality industry. Garlington, who still works in the restaurant industry, regularly experiences what she describes as “extreme racism.” Although these findings were collected in early 2019 they underscore the current reality facing hospitality educators and hospitality organizations.   

This study specifically found:

  • Minority hospitality students working in the industry experience a  high level of discrimination and have a lower level of career satisfaction. Among those in our study sample, Black students reported the second highest level of discrimination, followed by Asians, Latinos, and white students, respectively. Middle Eastern students reported the highest and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander the lowest level of discrimination. Career satisfaction has been found to have a significant relationship to employee turnover and service recovery in hospitality, which has huge financial and customer satisfaction implications.  

  • There appears to be a significant gap in the number of Black students (4 percent) pursing a hospitality education as compared to Asians (53 percent), white students (34 percent), and Latinos (17 percent). 

Racial inclusion and career opportunities for minorities were examined in the 2019 NAACP Opportunity & Diversity Report Card. For career success as measured by promotions, Hilton received a grade of F, Hyatt a C, Marriot a C, and Wyndham a D when it came to the promotion of African Americans. 

Historically, restaurant companies such as Denny’s and Cracker Barrel have been called out for discrimination, but recently Papa John’s and Starbucks have joined the chorus of those under fire for claims of racism.    

The history of Black Americans in hospitality in the Southwest, particularly in Las Vegas, shows that the majority of the frontline hospitality jobs were once occupied by Black people. In the 1990s, many of jobs were transitioned to those in the growing Latino and Asian communities. This may, in part, contribute to perceptions of discrimination and to the low numbers of black students enrolled in hospitality programs.   

Given the historical backdrop and the findings of our study, how do hospitality organizations and hospitality schools respond to the growing consciousness about racism?  Here are a few recommendations  to consider: 

  • As hospitality workers are recalled back, consider the racial implications that are related to historical racial discrimination against Black Americans. Labor unions must be brought to the table to find practical solutions that are fair to the existing workforce while achieving equality for all. It is not about displacing our white, Asian, and Latino brothers and sisters. It is about ensuring that all have access to career opportunities.  

  • Hospitality organizations should partner with academic intuitions to strengthen the pipeline of qualified Black candidates for management position. In our study, only 4 percent of the working student sample were Black. This will require academic institutions to assess their populations to see if Black student representation is consistent with local and regional populations and take action when disparities are found.

  • Establish transparency in reporting racial representation by job class. A true commitment to diversity is demonstrated by ensuring the equitable inclusion of all. By reporting job class representation throughout the organizational hierarchy, students and employees can have more confidence that the system is just and equitable and will lead to higher perceptions that career success is possible.   

  • At the individual level, Black employees must work to increase their personal resilience and self-efficacy. The fight for equality is difficult. This is very important for young people because over time, the experience of racism can have long-term psychological effects, up to and including post-traumatic stress disorder. Hospitality organizations must act on claims of discrimination and set zero tolerance policies that have consequences for those found to engage in racist behavior.