Managing Diversity at Your Restaurant or Hotel for Your Customers and Staff

    By Matthew Griffith

    It’s been said many times in the last few years about many industries, but it bears repeating: diversity makes dollars and sense. No longer limited to metropolitan areas, the marketplace for restaurants and hotels has become increasingly multicultural, with both employees and customers coming from widely divergent backgrounds. As a result, managing diversity concerns as a restaurant or hotel owner/operator has never been more important.

    Not providing a welcoming environment to traditionally marginalized communities—whether Black, Latino, Asian-American Pacific Islander (AAPI), LGBTA, or any other—is leaving money on the table, as well as courting a PR disaster. It’s not enough to prohibit discriminating outwardly against customers on the basis of race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or age in managing diversity-related conflicts (after all, that’s just good business).

    Taking the extra step by ensuring bias doesn’t influence the behavior of your staff—even in subtle or less outward ways—is critical in today’s quick-to-media environment. It only takes one viral tweet or Facebook post to damage your business’ reputation for years to come. And if the worst of negative PR or social media exposure happens, is your business prepared to deal with that fallout?

    Managing diversity concerns means defusing your own bias in an active way, and encouraging the same of your team members. On the following page are five strategies for overcoming bias on a daily basis that can prevent culturally insensitive moments and keep your business open and inviting to customers for years to come.

    1. Watch your first thought.
      So much of cultural and racial bias comes from deeply-held—but not very well understood or questioned—beliefs that hit at the heart of our emotional core. Your first unconscious thought when encountering someone of a different background may very well be an unfair kneejerk reaction polite society finds unacceptable.
      But once you can recognize that your first thought is indeed an unwelcome, unconscious bias, you can deliberately work against it. This can be as simple as checking yourself and making a habit of taking a deep breath before speaking, particularly in stressful confrontations or conflicts. Don’t let unconscious bias define your thoughts and feelings. You can control where you let your own speech and actions take you.
    2. Use the power of logic.
      Unconscious bias is indeed pervasive and often strongly held, but it is nothing if not emotionally-based. Getting past that quickly in the moment means shifting gears and letting your logical brain take over. Leave emotion behind and ask yourself, what are the facts of the given situation?
      “Occam’s Razor” is a very useful tool when confronted by any situation where motives and/or causes are unknown—that is, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. Managing diversity effectively among your staff may mean asking them to use this method when in conflict with each other. For example, a dishwasher may ask why your kitchen line cooks speak Spanish to each other most of time? The answer is far more likely that it is their first language and doing so promotes accuracy and efficiency, rather than they are trying to hide something from another worker.
    3. Hit the pause button.
      This is particularly important as conflicts (whether between you and your staff, among your staff, or between staff and a customer) get heated, as they can in customer service environments. It can be easy for confrontations—particularly if there is a belief that racial, ethnic, or sexual bias is involved—to spiral quickly out of control and lead to hurt feelings that cannot be so easily mended.
      Let each person in the conflict express their concern and if you’re moderating, repeat back what you hear to ensure accuracy. This also gives each person a little time to absorb what the other has said. Insist on parties only speaking one at a time, and if a cooling off period is necessary to maintain calm, insist on that as well. This is also good advice if you find yourself getting heated as well.
    4. Act as if the bias doesn’t exist.
      “Fake it ’til you make it.” It’s not advice to give a crane operator or surgeon, but it can come in handy when attempting to proactively overcome an unconscious bias. The more you behave as if your bias doesn’t exist, the more likely over time that it won’t. Invite colleagues and staff to share their experiences with you. There’s power in personal stories to help diffuse bias.
      Be forewarned, however. It’s not enough to say the right things. Simply telling your employees, “Oh, I don’t have any biases or prejudice” when your actions say otherwise will only make your workers distrust what you tell them. People can feel bias when it is directed toward them if it comes out in other ways called micro-aggressions, and it will affect your business. Micro-aggressions can be as simple as off-color jokes, quips, or comments, or as complex as body language, tone of voice, or facial tics. Speaking deliberately with authenticity and compassion helps minimize these kinds of expressions of bias.
    5. Make real connections in the community.
      If you live or operate your business in an area with a high percentage of Black, Latinx, AAPI, LGBTA, or other marginalized people, do you know who the community leaders are for each group? Have you reached out to them to welcome them to your business? In other words, have you engaged customers of different backgrounds and ethnicities proactively and purposefully? It should be part of your community building as a small business.
      High profile customers, vendors, and even friendly competitors can be important allies if or when your business faces a charge of bias. Having someone prominent from within the community willing to stand up for your brand and assist with a resolution, if needed, can be more helpful than you imagine.
      Ultimately, so much of managing diversity worries among your staff and management boils down to following a few basic, common sense rules that really transcend racial or cultural divides.


    DO acknowledge people’s feelings. Repeating back concerns as you hear them not only reinforces to an angry customer that you hear them, but also can help reinforce the real problem in your own mind.

    DO stay focused on facts. Letting emotions get intertwined with understanding what happened and how to make a situation better is only going to slow down and possibly prevent a satisfying resolution to a dispute. State what you know, not what you feel.

    DO say “and” instead of “but.” This is a simple tactic, but one that pays off really quickly when speaking. It instantly takes the negativity out of many statements by not allowing yourself to negate the first half of a sentence with the contents of the second half.

    DO offer culturally authentic solutions. Know enough about the backgrounds and environments of customers and staff you employ to be able to offer solutions that really mean something to them, without coming off as patronizing. Your attempts at sensitivity will be appreciated. And if you’re self-aware enough know you don’t have the answer, invite your customers or employees to share their personal stories with you.


    DON’T make assumptions. Take people at their word and don’t assume ulterior motives, particularly if you’ve had uncomfortable experiences with other members of their community in the past. Generalizations can lead to confrontations that spiral out of control quickly.

    DON’T use terms that will insult or offend. This should go without saying, but using slurs, derogatory names, or in-community slang from communities you are not a part of is not acceptable.

    DON’T let micro-aggressions undermine your words. Body language, facial expressions, or tone of voice can take even the sincerest words on paper and turn them into the most offensive of statements.

    DON’T let insincerity kill your reputation. Managing diversity at the customer and staff level means really caring about the people you encounter and work with every day. If you speak to people with respect (and genuinely mean it), your reputation as a friendly, positive business will reflect that.

    Change in any environment is challenging, but it doesn’t have to be scary or damage your brand—unless you let it. Be proactive. Be inclusive. And above all, be welcoming. •

    This article was originally published on June 29, 2017, on the blog.