Is there a talent pool more beloved — and more lampooned — than “Hooters girls”?
Cheryl Whiting-Kish, who stepped into the chief people officer role for parent company HOA Brands in summer 2022, has been with the company for decades. To use the wing franchise’s turn of phrase, she donned the orange shorts around 1987. She worked her way up to training general manager and ran operations in the field, she said, before becoming the first female vice president of HOA Brands in the 1990s — notably, in the human resources department. Even after she started her own consulting firm, she kept close to the flock as a Hooters company consultant.
Now, she wants to put Hooters girls on a similar path to success and nurture them at every step of the talent life cycle.
Prior to being appointed CPO, Whiting-Kish had been working as HOA Brands’ senior vice president of organizational effectiveness since October 2019. What keeps bringing her back to HR?
In one sense, it’s empowerment — and wanting to imbue a new generation of Hooters girls with that confidence. “Those who have worn the orange shorts are very proud of the brand. We feel very strong in our decision to be in control of our life and our choices, our own agency,” she said over the phone.
Who gets to wear the orange shorts?
Consumers may have a singular image of the restaurant’s waitresses at the forefront of their mind, but Whiting-Kish emphasizes that the reality is so much more complex.
Whiting-Kish mentioned Hooters’ commitment to diversity, as well as its greater inclusion of different kinds of hair and tattooed candidates. (HR Dive reached out for additional comment regarding DEI initiatives, but did not hear back by the time of publication.) Still, from the 2000s Hooters calendars to the waitresses on “Hooterstok,” the decades-old image of a Hooters girl persists: the slim, fair-skinned woman with long hair and an ample chest.
Some are trying to change that. Chynna Turner and her Mississippi-based, plus-size influencer collective, Big Dolls, dressed up as Hooters girls for Halloween 2021. “My girls and I wanted to make a statement with our Halloween look this year,” Turner told the New York Post in November 2021.
She continued, “Hooters typically discriminates against bigger women, but I figured showing up and showing out in the Hooters uniform would help spread the message that you don’t have to be a size 2 to ‘do you’ in a sexy and confident way.” At the time, New York Post did not hear back from HOA Brands for comment about plus-size discrimination.
The year prior, plus-size influencer Stella Williams accidentally went viral for her waitress cosplay, captioned “the world’s first plus-sized Hooters girl.” Many outlets noted the outpouring of positive comments and the implied collective perception that Hooters does not hire plus-size women. (HR Dive reached out for additional comment regarding inclusion of plus-size job candidates, and did not hear back by the time of publication.)
There’s also the question of gender. Federal employment law bans discrimination against protected identity categories, including gender. Back in 1997, Hooters reached a settlement to pay $3.75 million in a class-action discrimination suit, filed by men in Illinois and Maryland. In the suit, the plaintiffs said they applied to be bartenders and waiters, not Hooters girls, The Chicago Tribune reported.
In addition to the payments, Hooters leadership agreed to create three gender-neutral roles additional to the restaurant staff and management roles: a floor role, a hosting position and a bartending opportunity, all as support for Hooters girls. The loophole is in the company claiming gender as a bona fide occupational qualification for hiring— something Texas courts upheld in 2009 in response to another discrimination suit filed by a man. Recruiters can bar candidates who aren’t women from certain roles, because it is “reasonably necessary to the normal operation of the particular business or enterprise.”
Whiting-Kish was actually a spokesperson for Hooters during the early gender-based discrimination controversy. “In the 90s, we were challenged by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission around the hiring of females only as Hooters girls. I spoke at the National Press Club and we rallied around why hiring females as Hooters girls was critical to the brand,” she said.
Now, in her role as chief people officer, Whiting-Kish aims to spotlight the dimensions of women servers. She does not want them to be pigeonholed by their time on the job; Hooters servers are “like anyone else out there with dreams and goals and struggles,” she said.
How does HOA Brands help talent leave the nest?
Recently, Whiting-Kish helped create an awareness campaign illustrating how time at the restaurants themselves can be a launch pad for an array of careers, including business, law and HR.
Whiting-Kish could point to many of her own peers in talent acquisition and HR who cut their teeth as Hooters’ girls. Whiting-Kish mentioned several HR execs in the retail industry, including Maura Lynn Kelly, CVS Health’s executive director of HR for retail operations.
Susan Donnelly, the State of Oklahoma’s director of organizational and HR development is a former Hooters girl. Kim Patterson, another Hooters girl, runs a talent firm, Catapult People Solutions. Whiting-Kish mentioned a couple more HR execs in the food industry, including Restaurants of America VP of People and Culture Ashley Hoffman.
Giving talent more opportunity to spread their wings, HOA brands connects Hooters girls and “Heart of House” kitchen staff with career-minded peers at its leadership forum. HOA Brands also offers tuition reimbursement and flexible scheduling for working students. Education benefits are increasingly common and consistent for fast food franchises: Chipotle, Starbucks, Raising Cane’s, Papa John’s and Chick-fil-A all offer some form of tuition reimbursement.
The food franchise’s method of helping realizing those dreams and surmount those struggles bodes well for employee retention. Whiting-Kish estimated that about two-thirds of workers in HOA Brands’ corporate office or “Restaurant Support Center” came from the field — either as a Hooters girl or Heart of House kitchen staff.
“We've always known that we do an excellent job of promoting from within,” Whiting-Kish explained. “That's what helps us sustain our culture.”
Ultimately, the new chief people officer told HR Dive that she just wants to remove obstacles and barriers for every category of talent in the company. Hooters want to “give them the tools and the resources to become whomever they want to be and to do whatever they want to do in life,” Whiting-Kish said. “So that when they look back on their time, Hooters has bettered their life. Because it has done that for me.”