Critiquing Discriminatory Hiring Practices

This lesson challenges students to reflect on themes of fairness, perception, discrimination and legality with regard to employment and to examine their own biases and related experiences. 
Grade Level


Activities will help students:

  • Reflect upon the fairness and legality of imaginary hiring situations
  • Apply Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to a variety of situations
  • Identify discriminatory practices in the restaurant industry
  • Create and present a “Congressional Testimony” to improve discriminatory practices in the restaurant industry
Essential Questions
  • Why do people discriminate?
  • What happens when you judge someone based on how they look?
  • Should all people—regardless of race, ethnic background, religion, gender, disability or socioeconomic status—have the same opportunities to apply for and be hired for jobs?
  • What would you do if you knew a restaurant in your town gave people certain jobs because of the color of their skin?
  • Should businesses be allowed to hire based on an image or message they are trying to promote?
  • “Hiring Scenario Cards” handout


bias | bīəs |
(verb) To unfairly favor one group over others.

discrimination | disˌkriməˈnā sh ən |
(noun) Treating someone less favorably based on the group, class or category they belong to.Discrimination is prejudice in action.

minority | məˈnôrətē | 
(noun) A group differing (especially in race, religion, or ethnic background) from the majority of a population.

prejudice | prejədəs |
(noun) A negative judgment or opinion formed about a group without knowledge of the facts.

restaurant | rest(ə)rənt |
(noun) A place where meals are served to customers.

stereotype | sterēəˌtīp |
(noun) A mental image or judgment of a group based on opinion without regard to individual differences.

wage | wāj |
(noun) Money that is paid for doing a job.


The Chicago Tribune article, “Race Gap Seen in Restaurant Hiring,” explores the roles of race and class in staffing and uncovers examples and statistics pertaining to employment-related bias at our nation’s restaurants. According to the article, a recent Chicago-based survey revealed that 80 percent of whites work in the “front” of restaurants as waitstaff and hosts while nearly two-thirds of Hispanics work in the back. “Front” jobs pay more, offer more opportunities for advancement and better working conditions. This has led to several lawsuits. In fact, the McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant chain recently paid $1.1 million to settle a class action suit by black employees who said they were passed over for jobs as hosts and servers.

Bias is only part of the story. For restaurateurs, choosing employees to be their establishment’s “public face” involves complex perceptions of race and class. Sometimes that process holds back not only minorities but also white workers who don’t have a certain look. And many immigrant busboys and dishwashers can’t become servers because they haven’t mastered English or secured legal status. 

In related news, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a national restaurant workers’ organization, recently released a report called, “Behind the Kitchen Door,” which studied data from Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, Maine and New York City. In all five locations, “workers of color” were largely employed in the industry’s “bad jobs” (low wages, few benefits and limited opportunities for increased wages) while white workers disproportionately held the “good jobs” (living wages, access to health benefits and advancement opportunities). Workers also reported discriminatory hiring, promotion and disciplinary practices.

This lesson challenges students to reflect on themes of fairness, perception, discrimination and legality with regard to employment and to examine their own biases and related experiences. 


  1. Consider the following scenario: A cool store is opening in your town that will sell trendy clothing, sports equipment and the latest technology devices (cell phones, gaming systems/games and portable music) for kids your age. They want to hire 10 students from your school to work there. The students will get free clothing, sports equipment, cell phones, and gaming systems for a year and will be paid $20 per hour. They are asking each student who applies to send information about themselves, as well as a photograph. Of the 10 students who are hired, five of them will be blonde and all of them must be attractive. Unattractive students could possibly get hired to stock shelves or answer phones but they will not get the free items and will be paid $8 per hour.
  2. Discuss:
    • Do you think this is a fair hiring situation? Explain your answer.
    • Do you think this is a legal hiring situation? Explain your answer. (It is not illegal to ask someone to send in a photograph or answer personal questions about her appearance, but it is illegal to make a hiring decision based on those factors.)
    • What do you think about photographs being requested as part of a job application?
    • Is this a job you would apply for? Why or why not?
    • What if the “attractive” requirement was substituted by “white,” “American-born,” or “intelligent?” Would that change any of your answers to the questions above?
  3. Review Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This federal law makes it illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin or sex. The law also makes it illegal to retaliate against a person because the person complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit. The law also requires that employers reasonably accommodate applicants’ and employees’ sincerely held religious practices, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business. Other federal laws that prohibit job discrimination include:
    • The Equal Pay Act of 1963 which protects men and women who perform equal work from being paid differently.
    • The Older Workers Benefit Protection Act of 1990, which prohibits employment discrimination against individuals who are 40 years of age or older.
    • The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits employment discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities in the private sector and state or local governments; and Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits the same discrimination for the federal government.
  4. Considering these federal laws, do any of the scenarios above show discrimination that breaks the law? (Not hiring someone based on his weight, age or color would be against the law. Not hiring based on country of birth or intelligence may depend on the specific job description.)
  5. Are you familiar with any businesses, nationally or locally, that discriminate against any certain group when hiring? Do you think there are any scenarios where it would be okay to discriminate against certain groups when hiring? (Students might cite safety reasons here including height as a factor when hiring a jockey or sight as a requirement when hiring a pilot.
  6. Before doing this part of the lesson, cut out and evenly distribute the cards on the Hiring Scenario Cards handout.) Divide into groups of three or four. Discuss the scenario on your card. How does it make you feel? Does it exhibit discrimination and, if so, against which group? Does it infringe upon Title VII of the Civil Rights Act? If so, in what way? Would you apply for this job? Would you patronize this store or restaurant if you knew this was part of their hiring practices? Share your group’s answers with the class.
  7. Read the article “Race Gap Seen in Restaurant Hiring.” With your group, highlight all of the examples in the article of discrimination or prejudice that you can identify. You may want to review the definitions of discrimination and prejudice.
  8. Then ask:
    • Do you happen to notice if there is a racial balance in the “front” of the restaurants you visit with your family or friends?
    • Do you think the term “hard-working Mexican,” as referenced in the article, is complimentary or harmful?
    • Do you think it’s okay for restaurants to hire only waitstaff that fit a certain image?
    • Do you think it’s okay for ethnic restaurants to hire only workers of the same or a similar ethnicity? For example, is it okay for Chinese restaurants to hire only Chinese workers or Mexican restaurants to hire only Mexican workers? What does the author mean when he says restaurateurs are “searching for a precise skill set necessary to help a customer pair the right Pinot with the filet mignon?” (This example suggests that those who work in the “front” of some fine restaurants must be educated and refined enough to be able to help a customer select a wine that would complement an expensive item such as filet mignon. The author implies that certain minorities or uneducated people would not be able to do so and are therefore not hired for these jobs.)
    • Can you think of other “brands” or companies that hire a certain type of person to fit an image? Think of stores at the mall or local businesses. Do you think that’s fair? (Challenge students to think about trendy clothing stores or fitness centers, among other businesses.)
  9. A report called, “Behind the Kitchen Door,” studied the hiring and employment practices of the restaurant industry in five different locations around the country. Read the executive summary of the research and identify three to five specific examples or statistics that illustrate inequality and discriminatory practices in the restaurant industry. Create a class list of these practices and statistics. In your small group, select one of the practices and summarize why it illustrates inequality or discrimination; why it is harmful to workers, customers and the restaurant industry itself; and why changing it would have a positive outcome.
  10. Imagine that your group has been asked to testify to a congressional task force that has been formed to study the practices outlined in the report and to make recommendations. Your group can represent a specific restaurant or restaurant chain, a worker, an applicant who applied for a job or a customer. Write a testimony that is at least three minutes in length when read. It must include at least three facts from the report, a specific recommendation to address or change a discriminatory practice, a strategy for implementing your recommendation, and a justification for why it will work.
  11. Present your testimony to the class.
Extension Activity
  • Interview a restaurateur in your community to learn about the racial and ethnic balance of the workers, the restaurant’s hiring practices, and how he or she ensures that federal equal opportunity laws are being followed.
  • Read about authentic examples of workplace discrimination lawsuits at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Web site.  
  • This lesson focuses primarily on traditional racial discrimination but another issue raised in the article relates to how people of color and immigrants in the kitchens are paid less and treated differently because they are not legal U.S. citizens. That makes them victims of not only traditional discrimination but also economic exploitation. Have students discuss this type of discrimination. Have them consider whether non-U.S. citizens should be hired to work at restaurants. If so, should they be given the same rights as citizens, including opportunities to apply for “front-of-the-restaurant” jobs?  
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