A recent study found evidence of bias in the hospitality industry when researchers emailed 6,000 hotels for restaurant recommendations from email accounts with seemingly "racial" or "ethnic" names. While this won’t be news to BIPOC communities, it does validate what they’ve been saying all along about the insidious nature of everyday discrimination. Likewise, the study should act as a wakeup call for the hotel sector, its management and the service industry in general. Between viral videos, Gen Z’s purpose-driven expectations and so-called cancel culture, a proactive approach to discrimination is more imperative than ever.
This research, conducted by Alexandra Feldberg of Harvard Business School and Tami Kim of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, was carried out between 2016 and 2020. The pair messaged concierges at thousands of hotels around the United States to ask for local restaurant recommendations. They did so from accounts set up to make it appear as though the sender was of a particular race, such as one with the name Mei Chen to evoke an Asian woman, LaToya Washington to evoke a Black woman and Brad Anderson to evoke a white man.
While the response rates were higher for the accounts with the white-sounding names (43 percent) than the Black-sounding names (40 percent) and even more so than the Asian-sounding names (36 percent), the biggest difference was in the quality of the responses. For example, whether or not staff answered with personalized greetings or not varied greatly. Such a greeting went out to perceivably white names almost 75 percent of the time, compared to only 61 percent and 57 percent of the time to perceivably Black and Asian names.
Responses to guys like "Brad Anderson" also included a higher number of recommendations. About 28 percent of responses to white-sounding names gave information in addition to what was asked for in the original email, whereas only 16 percent of those responding to Black-sounding names and 4 percent of those responding to Asian-sounding names sent extra recommendations or information.
As Kim told Harvard Business School: “If hotel managers were only checking response rates, they wouldn’t see any differences in how their service representatives respond to people's emails. Then they might think, ‘Oh, my service representatives are doing great. There's nothing to improve here.’ But what our results are showing is that we need to go beyond that because, even if they are responding to everyone, it doesn't mean that everyone is getting treated equally.”
She and Feldberg did have a few suggestions for the hotel industry, such as surveying a range of different customers to determine if their experiences were of the same quality. Next, they suggested tracking things like greetings and upgrades in order to ensure that guests are getting the same treatment regardless of race. And last, they proposed that hotel management could use a similar methodology as the one in their study to catch bias and provide coaching to staff.
Also of great importance, the study’s authors note that hotel management can create an environment that fosters equity in customer service by setting standards for how employees interact with customers and administer perks. Furthermore, by holding staff accountable for who they give perks to and why, there is a better chance that they will be distributed in an unbiased manner.
Staff composition is of notable importance as well — but it’s no miracle cure. As a 2015 Harvard study on bias in Airbnb bookings discovered, name discrimination occurred even when the host was Black. Still, hiring a diverse staff along with diverse leadership with definitive service protocols in place will go a long way toward remedying the present situation within the hotel industry, Feldberg and Kim said.
Now is the time for hotel management to act. With the advent of live-streaming and apps like TikTok, ignoring discrimination and bias among frontline workers can have devastating effects on businesses that risk getting caught up in a scandal. But it’s not just misbehavior caught on camera that can be problematic. People talk on social media, and they notice when they don’t get the same treatment as others.
Gen Z now makes up roughly 40 percent of U.S. consumers. That’s a big deal considering that they are holding brands to task when it comes to social justice issues. While many are too young to book hotels themselves, they won’t be for long. And those at the older end of the spectrum aren’t likely to treat hotels any differently than other brands. They’d simply rather spend their money somewhere that reflects what matters to them. Hospitality brands that hope to court this target market will have to tackle inherent bias among customer service staff.
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