MFHA: Ditching diversity in a down economy invites disastrous public relations

MFHA: Ditching diversity in a down economy invites disastrous public relations

CHICAGO —Restaurant employers could face public relations disasters if their economically driven decisions to close stores and lay off employees are perceived as a retreat from diversity, said attendees at the recent Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance conference here.

Operators attending the annual gathering said the best way for their peers who are facing tough staffing decisions to deflect the stigma that they are backtracking on their commitment to diversity is to concentrate more on retaining talented employees and less on short-term cost savings. —Restaurant employers could face public relations disasters if their economically driven decisions to close stores and lay off employees are perceived as a retreat from diversity, said attendees at the recent Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance conference here.

While the keynote addresses, breakout sessions and workshops at the three-day gathering at the Fairmont Hotel generally pushed an upbeat program spotlighting successful case studies of diversity implementation—and featured the first-ever daylong job fair for college students—the state of the enfeebled economy and its effect on the role of multiculturalism in hiring policies and vendor relationships was the pressing topic on many minds. —Restaurant employers could face public relations disasters if their economically driven decisions to close stores and lay off employees are perceived as a retreat from diversity, said attendees at the recent Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance conference here.

“We’ve come a long way in our thought processes about diversity, and the MFHA and the Restaurant Association] have worked hard to clean up the image of this industry as a bad place to work if you were a person of color or a minority,” said a human resources director for a family-dining chain who did not want to be identified. “But if we use the weak economy as an excuse and blindly sacrifice workers on our staffs for the sake of making some investors happy with a tenth of a percentage of margin growth, then we’re right back where we started from.” —Restaurant employers could face public relations disasters if their economically driven decisions to close stores and lay off employees are perceived as a retreat from diversity, said attendees at the recent Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance conference here.

Except for the months of recession the country suffered following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, MFHA members have never faced a more difficult economic challenge in the 11 years since the organization’s founding, said Gerry Fernandez, MFHA president and co-founder. —Restaurant employers could face public relations disasters if their economically driven decisions to close stores and lay off employees are perceived as a retreat from diversity, said attendees at the recent Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance conference here.

But while many troubled companies have no choice but to close stores and lay off workers in order to improve business, Fernandez implored them to be sensitive, fair and smart about it. —Restaurant employers could face public relations disasters if their economically driven decisions to close stores and lay off employees are perceived as a retreat from diversity, said attendees at the recent Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance conference here.

“I think we are entering a new space,” Fernandez said. “We’ve never seen diversity being challenged by an economic downturn before, and it’s all the more complicated by the multiple of woe in home foreclosures, the banking crisis, gas and food increases, and consumer debt. And it’s global. —Restaurant employers could face public relations disasters if their economically driven decisions to close stores and lay off employees are perceived as a retreat from diversity, said attendees at the recent Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance conference here.

“Some companies needed to go close some of these stores anyway, because let’s face it, the industry had too many seats, a lot of under-performing locations and not enough fannies in some markets. But at the same time that these companies talk about closing stores and downsizing staff, they better also discuss how we preserve the elements of our diversity program that are most critical to us.” —Restaurant employers could face public relations disasters if their economically driven decisions to close stores and lay off employees are perceived as a retreat from diversity, said attendees at the recent Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance conference here.

Handled poorly, Fernandez warned, unwanted outside scrutiny can ruin a brand’s image and good intentions. —Restaurant employers could face public relations disasters if their economically driven decisions to close stores and lay off employees are perceived as a retreat from diversity, said attendees at the recent Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance conference here.

“We know there are going to be cuts and there are going to be changes,” he said. “McDonald’s, Yum! Brands [3] and Darden [4] are having this conversation right now and have resolved to keep their foot to the pedal because all of that work that went into investing in diversity has paid off. —Restaurant employers could face public relations disasters if their economically driven decisions to close stores and lay off employees are perceived as a retreat from diversity, said attendees at the recent Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance conference here.

“But if you decide to cut your on-campus recruitment or minority outreach programs, or you close stores too heavily in minority neighborhoods or cut your ties with minority vendors, or suddenly you shelve your programs to hire the physically challenged, or you favor for layoffs one group over another, you’re going to be suspect and these past four or five years was nothing but bunk. And you open yourself up for community activists like Jesse Jackson and others to generate their own messages about you.” —Restaurant employers could face public relations disasters if their economically driven decisions to close stores and lay off employees are perceived as a retreat from diversity, said attendees at the recent Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance conference here.

After accepting an award for his company’s steadfastness to diversity and delivering a keynote banquet address, Chuck Floyd, president of Hyatt Hotels & Resorts of North America, told a reporter that a commitment to diversity shouldn’t be sacrificed because times are bad. —Restaurant employers could face public relations disasters if their economically driven decisions to close stores and lay off employees are perceived as a retreat from diversity, said attendees at the recent Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance conference here.

“It’s times like this, not good times, that test what a company truly stands for,” he said. “Anybody can lay off hundreds of workers and close units and say, ‘Oh, it’s the economy.’ But smart and sensitive operators are going to look at their staffs, the talent and skills they have, and make the right decisions. There’s no reason this movement needs to be curtailed.” —Restaurant employers could face public relations disasters if their economically driven decisions to close stores and lay off employees are perceived as a retreat from diversity, said attendees at the recent Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance conference here.

Joseph Jackson, vice president of inclusion and diversity for OSI Restaurant Partners [5], the Tampa, Fla.-based parent of 800-unit Outback Steakhouse [6], agreed. —Restaurant employers could face public relations disasters if their economically driven decisions to close stores and lay off employees are perceived as a retreat from diversity, said attendees at the recent Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance conference here.

Jackson stressed that if operators hired the right people and trained them properly on the front end, there wouldn’t have to be heartache and pink slips on the back end. In essence, he argued, an economic downturn could be absorbed with little staff reduction because, in the end, it’s the staff’s skill sets and customer relationships that move companies successfully through bad times. —Restaurant employers could face public relations disasters if their economically driven decisions to close stores and lay off employees are perceived as a retreat from diversity, said attendees at the recent Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance conference here.

“Race, sex, age, ethnicity and physical ability are not the most important considerations at times like this,” Jackson said. “It’s having the best people no matter what sex, age, race, ethnicity or physical capability. —Restaurant employers could face public relations disasters if their economically driven decisions to close stores and lay off employees are perceived as a retreat from diversity, said attendees at the recent Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance conference here.

“The most important thing is having a history of developing and training your employees, so when you have downturns you may lose a few people through natural attrition—and we try to minimize that as compassionately as possible—but I think your training and selection process is crucial. That’s what gets you through.” —Restaurant employers could face public relations disasters if their economically driven decisions to close stores and lay off employees are perceived as a retreat from diversity, said attendees at the recent Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance conference here.

Tony Mitchell, vice chair of the board of directors of MFHA and chief financial officer of Morrison Management [7] Specialists, the Atlanta-based Compass Group [8] subsidiary that specializes in on-site hospital and senior-living foodservice, reminded his peers that the economy will one day turn around. That means, he said, that now—more than yesterday or tomorrow—staffs need to become more diverse, not less. —Restaurant employers could face public relations disasters if their economically driven decisions to close stores and lay off employees are perceived as a retreat from diversity, said attendees at the recent Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance conference here.

Betty Henderson Wingfield, a corporate diversity consultant who co-led a workshop entitled “Straight Talk for Diversity Leaders,” in which diversity officers shared anecdotes about their jobs in order to compile best practices, said some employers with diversity programs can be as closed-minded as those without them when the economy turns the wrong way. —Restaurant employers could face public relations disasters if their economically driven decisions to close stores and lay off employees are perceived as a retreat from diversity, said attendees at the recent Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance conference here.

She recently told a company that hired her for advice that they were heading for trouble if they followed through with a layoff in which 80 percent of the people to be furloughed were black and, of those, half were older than 45. —Restaurant employers could face public relations disasters if their economically driven decisions to close stores and lay off employees are perceived as a retreat from diversity, said attendees at the recent Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance conference here.

“So I told them that if this layoff became broadly known, the legal and public relations consequences could be devastating,” she said. “You know what they did? They fired me.” —Restaurant employers could face public relations disasters if their economically driven decisions to close stores and lay off employees are perceived as a retreat from diversity, said attendees at the recent Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance conference here.