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Q&A: MFHA’s president on the 2022 DEI Survey Report’s most surprising findings

We asked Gerry Fernandez, president of MFHA, a few questions about the survey, the state of DEI in the industry today and what’s next.

DEI foodservice industry
(Image credit: Pexels)

Employee engagement and retention are key challenges for many industries and with almost 800,000 fewer workers in the field as of April of this year compared with pre-pandemic times, according to the National Restaurant Association, foodservice is no exception. From perks to values, companies are being charged with upholding a level of job satisfaction in an unprecedented way. Diversity, equity and inclusion efforts have become a basic necessity in that equation, and according to a new report produced by the National Restaurant Association, National Restaurant Association Education Foundation,  the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance and the Cornell University Nolan School of Hotel Administration, there is work to be done.

The 2022 DEI Survey Report solidified that there is in fact a correlation between the impact of DEI strategies and foodservice workers’ job satisfaction. It also found that there is a gap between how restaurant and foodservice organizations view their DEI policies and how employees actually experience them.

In addition to the 2022 DEI Survey Report, the same groups published ELEVATE: A Menu for Change, a step-by-step guide for the foodservice and restaurant industry on how to implement or revisit their DEI strategies and programs.

We asked Gerry Fernandez, president of MFHA, a few questions about the survey, the state of DEI in the industry today and what’s next.

SB: Can you comment on the need for surveys like this in gauging the reality of the state of DEI in the foodservice and hospitality industry, and how valuable the information gleaned is?

Gerry Fernandez, MFHA
Gerry Fernandez, MFHA president

Fernandez: The challenge and opportunity of diversity, equity, and inclusion has overall not been well studied. Research costs money and until recently, DEI has not been a big enough priority for companies to allocate funds to study the issues. In fact, if not for the vision of the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, that put up the money for this collaborative project, this DEI survey would not have been done.

The value of this kind of data cannot be overstated. Leaders must know which issues are of greatest importance to their employees. The work ethic and motivators for boomers is very different than for millennials and Gen Z employees. And like the maestro in an orchestra, managers have to know how to get everyone on the team to work together to the benefit of all. The more and better data we have, the better informed are our decisions.

SB: What was the most surprising finding from the survey for you? Why?

Fernandez: There most surprising thing for me in this survey was that employers think they are doing better on DEI than do employees. Companies say they have programs, but employees don’t know about them. 

Also, DEI really matters to employees that want to stay, yet employers don’t necessarily see the value of DEI. I think this is one of the most important takeaways because employers and employees have to be in sync on what makes for an inclusive and productive workplace. If companies offer training on DEI, then employees need to know about it and should be using it. 

Also, retention is one key to solving our workforce challenges, because we know once they leave the industry most are not coming back. The research shows how embracing our whole workforce, no matter how they identify, can impact retention. If we don’t show them we care and want to help them achieve their life goals, we will lose our best talent to other industries.

SB: What are the biggest takeaways for the industry from this report? 

Fernandez: There are three big takeaways from the research:

  1. The survey found that employers over-estimate the number of historically marginalized communities in the restaurant industry, especially at the mid- and upper-levels of management, compared to how employees self-report.
  2. Employer and employee perceptions of current DEI initiatives differed on the effectiveness and awareness of the policies. 92% of companies report having resources dedicated to DEI initiatives, however employees report low awareness of these policies. 78% of enterprises reported having employee diversity training or awareness events, while only 48% of current employees and 34% of former employees reported receiving this training. And 73% of employers believe that a diverse workforce improves a company’s innovation, yet 54% of enterprises believe that money spent on diversity programs is not having a noticeable impact.
  3. When restaurant employees leave the industry, many do not return. Respect and a culture of belonging are associated with job satisfaction and intention to stay in the industry.

SB: What should be the industry’s top priorities right now when it comes to DEI?

Fernandez:

  • Industry leaders need to learn and fully understand the issues that are important to our workforce and the communities we serve. 
  • Our leaders need to know how to make our workforce feel respected, valued, and heard when it comes to how they self-identify and experience everyday life. People have to feel that they can bring their whole self to work.
  • We have to embrace change and help employees build and navigate the roadmap to career and personal success if we truly want to be the industry of opportunity.

SB: Any future plans at MFHA that you’d like to share?

Fernandez: We plan to continue to do research. We have a report on board diversity that we are doing with Penn State University that will come out later this year. We also plan to have a more aggressive outreach to community-based organizations that serve underrepresented groups to promote our industry as a great place to build a career of a business. We have to tell our story directly to the people in compelling ways that show people of all stripes having success in the hospitality industry.

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Last year,  SmartBrief also collaborated with MFHA on an in-depth survey to create a report that dove into the attitudes of SmartBrief’s industry readers about racial inequity in the foodservice and hospitality industries and gauged the pulse of its audience on the state of diversity and inclusion initiatives. Some interesting stats from that survey include:

  • 63% of respondents said they believe that the foodservice industry plays a role in addressing structural racism.
  • Over one quarter (27%) said they weren’t sure if their company had a DEI or anti-racism program or initiative in place. 
  • 75% of executive-level respondents who said there are no barriers to introducing a DEI program work at a company without one in place. 

Industry leaders from MFHA, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Marriott International and Moon Rabbit also shared insights on the actions they took to make meaningful contributions to diversity, equity and inclusion. Download the free report to read more about insights on diversity in foodservice and hospitality, as well as action steps for employees and managers in addressing diversity and inclusion initiatives and exploring sustainable programs.

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