Exploring Bias and Discrimination in 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

  • explain the challenges and consequences of judging someone based on how they look
  • Reflect upon where bias originates
  • Identify discriminatory practices in the restaurant industry
  • Investigate their community with regard to discrimination in the workplace
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?


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. 



(Note: Before students enter the room, cut out photographs of different people from magazines, newspapers or Web sites. Each photo should have just one person in it but there should be a balance within all the photographs of different genders, ages, ethnic backgrounds and races. The photographs should not be of people that the students would actually know. Cut out just enough photographs so that two or three people can use the same photograph.)

  1. Form a group with one or two other students. (Distribute a photograph to your group as well as the Who Am I? handout.) Study the person in the photograph. Then use your perception of the person in the photograph to complete the biographical information. Do not share your perceptions with group members! 
  2. When you have all completed the handout, share your answers with other group members. Ask each other how you arrived at your answers. Which perceptions were similar? Which were different? Which surprised you? Talk about your group’s answers with the rest of the class. Then ask: 
    • Which group’s answers were most similar to each other?
    • Which group’s answers were most different from each other? 
    • What are the challenges and possible consequences of making assumptions about someone based only on how they look? 
    • How is it possible that different people can get a completely different perception of the same person? 
    • Would you consider that stereotyping? Would you consider it a form of discrimination? You may want to review the definitions of each. (Stereotyping is making assumptions or judgments about someone based on a particular feature or group to which they belong while discrimination is actually treating someone differently because of the group, class or category to which they belong. Given those definitions, the action would be closest to stereotyping).
    • Do you think people at your school or in society in general make judgments about people based on how they look? Share examples.
    • Have you ever judged someone incorrectly based on how they look?
  3. Often treating someone differently because of how they look is harmful. Sometimes it can even be against the law. (Distribute the You Be the Judge handout.) Read the examples on the handout. Then follow the directions to complete it. Once you have finished, share your answers with the class. Continue the discussion:
    • Which examples have you or someone you know experienced? 
    • Which do you consider the “most harmful” example of prejudice or discrimination? 
    • Which examples would you consider to be illegal? Why? (The illegal examples include #3 if a girls’ team does not exist, #4, #6 and #7)
    • People aren’t born being biased or prejudiced so where might the people in the examples have “learned” these feelings or behaviors? Consider family members, friends, the media or your experiences.
  4. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (a federal law) prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. If you are not familiar with this Act, review its content using the link in this lesson. Which example(s) from the handout exhibit employment discrimination? (Employment discrimination is illustrated in examples #6 and #7.) Do you think it is okay to hire or not hire someone based on how they look? What would society be like if we received privileges based on how we look?
  5. Read the article called “Race Gap Seen in Restaurant Hiring.” Circle all of the examples in this article of discrimination, prejudice or bias. Share these examples as a class. 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 only to hire waitstaff that fit a certain image?
    • 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.)
    • Do you think there are 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.)
  6. In a small group, come up with a question you’d like to answer or investigate related to your local community and bias/prejudice in the workplace. Design a strategy to help you answer or learn more about your question and present your findings to the class.
    • Does it exist? How do people feel about it? Other possible questions include:
      • Do local restaurants have a racial balance among waitstaff?
      • Do local shop owners hire fairly?
      • Would people in your town stop going to a store or restaurant if they knew there was hiring discrimination?
      • Have there been any discrimination cases related to local businesses?
  7. Then, based on all of the questions and answers, draw conclusions about employment discrimination in your community.


Extension Activity

  • Summarize your findings about discrimination in your community in a report and present it to the local government or community leaders.
  • This lesson focuses primarily on classic 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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