Service Has No Color.
Chris Longstreet, CHA ~ Society for Hospitality Management
Tuesday, 22nd February 2005
I left home on a trip recently that took me from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Houston, Texas. The cheapest flight I could get took me through Chicago's O'Hare Airport. The flight to Houston through Chicago was uneventful. The conference I attended was outstanding. On Friday, I returned home taking the same path – Houston to Grand Rapids through Chicago.

It started when ….

For a graduate class in multicultural issues in education, I read several assigned readings on racism on my flight from Houston to Chicago. I was intrigued by the readings and my interest was peaked by one chapter that referenced the racist actions of white people in places of public accommodation. The author related a story of an African-American couple that went to a restaurant on a slow night and were basically refused service. The couple waited near the door and servers simply ignored them. No one else was waiting to be seated and there were plenty of tables available in the dining room. But still, no service. The man was outraged and decided to leave. The wife stopped him outside and together they discussed their reaction. Eventually, they went back in and spoke to the manager and politely pointed out the racist actions of the staff which sadly, still failed to be addressed.

Another incident stated in the reading involved a wealthy African-American business man who received poor service on a regular basis at a restaurant which he frequented on a consistent basis. His white friends spoke highly of the service they received. He, however, felt that the service was slow and that the attentiveness of the staff when he dined was lacking. He then joined his white associates at the restaurant on one occasion and noticed that the service was outstanding – so different than when he was there with just his African-American friends. It seemed the restaurant had a serious problem with the color of his skin.

Another story outlined incidents of racial discrimination in hotels. As a professional in this industry, these stories hurt. The chapter outlined several stories where people of color were typically given the "not-so-desirable" rooms near the end of the halls, near elevators, and near other centers of activity. For people of color, service is different, accommodations are not as good, and the entire guest experience suffers as a result. I couldn't believe what I was reading, but it was true.

As a professional in the hospitality industry, I was saddened by these stories. I was saddened that people who claim to be hospitality professionals – professionals who offer a warm welcome to all guests - could act, and would act, in such a discriminatory and unfair fashion. Being a white male, I guess I just have never experienced those things. I wanted to put my head in the sand, plug my ears – I didn't want to believe any of these stories were true.

And then ….

Maybe it was my awareness of the subject of racism that made what happened when I landed at O'Hare Airport so eye opening. I was hungry and hadn't eaten lunch so I was searching for something quick to eat before my next flight. With a sigh, I stopped. "Another fast food meal," I thought. I waited in one of several short lines. I noticed that in line there were a diverse mixture of people of various races waiting with me. The crew of the restaurant was entirely African-American. I noticed that they were having a good time and seemed to be enjoying their work. They were laughing and the atmosphere seemed very friendly and fun.

Now remember that I had just spent time reading a chapter on how service was given differently to people based on their race. I stepped back and decided to observe the staff to see if they treated people differently based on the race of the customers they served. I watched an Asian man get served. The server asked, "Who's next" and didn't even look at the man standing at the counter. As he placed his order, the cashier gave no response, didn't repeat the order, and simply said, "$6.54." He handed his money to the cashier and received his change with no response. When his food came, the server simply slid the bag of food to him and the man walked quietly away.

I stood in the back of a line and watched the server take the next customer. The white female approached the same person and this time the cashier didn't even ask for her order. Once again, the server didn't repeat the order and simply stated the amount and waited for the customer to provide the money. Change was provided with no announcement of how much change was being given. With the same reaction, the food was placed in a bag and slid to the customer and off she went to catch her flight.

Curious, I moved to the line where this server was taking orders. In front of me stood a father and his son – both African-American men. This time, the server's attitude changed. "Welcome. May I take your order?" The server did know how to be polite! After the men placed their order, the server repeated the order, waited for acknowledgement that is was correct, and then announced the total stating, "That comes to $11.32." The man handed the server $20 and then received money back. The server said, "$8.68 is your change, and your order will be right up." When the food was ready, the bag was handed to the man and the server stated, "Here you go. Have a nice day!" He responded with a thank you and off he and his son went.

It was my turn. I stepped forward. I waited for a response. The server wasn't even looking at me. "Can I help who's next?" Whoa! What happened to this person who just treated the father and his son so nice? I placed my order and got the following response: "Will that be all?"

I responded in the affirmative.

"$5.97." I handed over $10 and received $4.03 in return. The server said nothing.

I had ordered the white meat chicken tender strips value meal. I waited and watched the other servers. My large Diet Coke was slid to me. Moments later, my bag was slid to me with no verbal discourse with any employee.

"May I have a straw?" The server handed me one. "May I have two honey mustard sauces please?" With no eye contact, the server reached down and slid me two packets of honey mustard sauce.

I left.

I didn't walk away mad. I had the right too, but I chose not to. Or did I? Is what I experienced something that goes on everyday and I (we) simply did not see it? Or, have we been so conditioned to expect what we define as poor service when in fact it was discriminatory service? Who's to blame?

But it didn't stop!

Now this subject was under my skin. I didn't believe what I was hearing and feeling? Are people in this industry that discriminatory? In sharing this with a peer, she'd related her personal experience:

As an African American, I can tell you that there is a definite difference in the level of service provided to people based on their color, race and many times based on their perceived class. I am a witness that many non-white people are treated with less consideration than white people. In the airports, we are more readily subjected to searches by security personnel who don't make eye contact with us, speak to us in a condescending manner, and take immediate offense if we say something that they disagree with.

I was asked to step aside by a white female security worker at the boarding gate. I made the statement, "Gee, I have been searched at every security checkpoint, is there a sign posted on me?" I made this statement in a joking tone. Any reasonable person within earshot would have known that I meant no harm. The security officer told me that if I continued to refuse to follow her commands that she would bar me from the flight and that I had better move over and accommodate her requests. I was shocked and offended. However, because I was accustomed to this type of behavior, I moved over, removed my shoes,

extended my arms, and met each of her requests. When I boarded the airplane I was so angry that tears welled in my eyes. I began to write a letter to the president of the airline regarding this matter. By the time I arrived at my destination, I had calmed down and I discarded the letter in the airport trash. Unfortunately, many people simply disregard the poor service and fail to confront the issue. That is exactly what I did and that is what perpetuates this type of activity. It needs to be addressed.

Racial and color issues go beyond "race against race." There is, within the black community, what is known as in-race discrimination. My skin tone color is very dark. As a result, within my own race, I am most likely to be treated worse than blacks with light or "yellow" skin tone colors or whites. In fact, I have been the subject of delayed and/or poor service by whites and blacks. It is not uncommon for blacks to disregard other blacks and run to give extraordinary service to whites.

Service Is Not About Color!

Service is not about color. Shouldn't the Asian man, the white female, the African-American father and son, and I, the white male, all deserve the same level of service? Does the African-American couple deserve the same service as the white customers? Should color dictate rooming assignments at a hotel and whether service should or should not be given? Good service – great service – is not about the color of one's skin.

Service is not about gender. Male or female, everyone should be treated the same.

Service is not about culture or religion. American, European, Latino, African, or Asian, everyone should be treated the same. Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, or atheist, everyone should be treated the same.

Service is not about age. Whether 18 or 80, everyone should be treated the same.

Service is not about lifestyle. It doesn't matter if the guest is heterosexual, homosexual, or bi-sexual, everyone should be treated the same.

Service isn't about how able our guests are. Whether in a wheelchair, or standing, physically or mentally impaired or not, everyone should be treated the same.

Service is about providing the best in hospitality to everyone no matter who they are, how much money they have, or what they look like. It doesn't matter what country we are in, where we work, or what service we are providing. Service is not a black or white issue. Service is not a tall or short issue. Service is not a male or female issue. Service is not a young or old issue. Service is treating each guest with equal amounts of dignity, respect, courtesy, and friendliness. As a frequent traveler, I wonder if I would get the same level of service on a business trip if I were wearing a suit and tie or my baggy sweats, hooded sweatshirt, and hat. Shall I try it?

Our Suggestion

As a professional in the hospitality industry, consider the following activities:
  1. Take a personal inventory of your actions. Do you treat guests or customers differently because of their gender, race, culture, age, or looks? Personally reflect on your own actions.

  2. Have someone observe your staff and see if they treat guests differently. Have them write down their observations and report back to you. Don't do it yourself as your employees will know you are watching. Ask a college professor or high school teacher, or even a friend. Pay for their meal or give them a night at your property. Review the findings with your staff.

  3. At a staff meeting, list various groups of people, your guest mix, on a white board or flip chart. For example:
    • Elderly people
    • People of another race
    • High schoolers
    • Families with young kids
    • A college sports team
    • A person in a wheelchair
    Ask your employees to list the stereotypes they have for each category of guests. Discuss how the stereotypes are formed and how they might be wrong. Outline the steps for great guest service for the organization and stress how everyone should be treated with the same respect and dignity.
Now, give your employees the tools, resources, and education to deal with this issue. This is not about a brand, or a single company, but about people and our society. We as hospitality professionals can lead the way, set the stage, and become the model for other industries to follow.

Chris Longstreet is President & CEO of the Society for Hospitality Management. He also serves as a visiting instructor for the Hospitality & Tourism Management Program at Grand Valley State University. For more information, visit the SHM website at www.hospitalitysociety.org or contact Chris at clongstreet@hospitalitysociety.org.

For a free subscription to the SHM Training Bulletin, visit www.hospitalitysociety.org or email info@hospitalitysociety.org.

© Society for Hospitality Management, February 2005
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