Category Archives: HR in Hospitality Conference

Shape Your Culture and Society

“Is today a day you wo83110696signatureuld sign your name to?”

That’s the question Marilyn Carlson Nelson posed to a group of HR professionals attending the HR in Hospitality® Conference & Expo in Las Vegas.  As chair of Carlson, a global and travel hospitality company, and opening speaker, she compared HR’s daily activities or events to works of art where artists proudly sign their name on completed pieces or projects.

Nelson believes there’s never been a better time for HR to use its platform to clearly define, redefine or even debate its corporate culture and role in society. She said HR professionals don’t have work in the C-suite to be effective at retooling their business culture to improve the common good.

As examples, she pointed to employees at Mosaic, a fertilizer company, who help villagers in underdeveloped nations grow crops while IBM workers apply their technical skills to help city leaders make communities smarter and more effective. Even her own company is addressing a “dark” problem—child trafficking.

The idea is for HR to “step up, speak from the heart, and lead with courage and confidence” to shape its culture in positive ways to contribute to humanity.

That’s the key to competitive advantage, she said, explaining that Millenials want to make a difference and are drawn to companies with a strong social conscience.

“Use culture as a means to an end,” she said. “I’m convinced that kind of contribution will be well rewarded.”

Discussion, But No Consensus from Summit Panelists

Panelists at the 3rd Annual Cornell University Executive Summit took up the issues of “changing demographics” and “social media and HR” — the two topics selected from a list of 12 by attendees at the HR in Hospitality™ Conference for a wide-ranging discussion.

There were lots of opinions by the group of 11 HR leaders and attorneys on the panel about the use of social media for recruiting, engagement, training, screening, to reconnect with alumni, you name it.

There was little controversy about its use for recruiting; using it for screening candidates was another story.

A.J. Kamra, corporate director of HR at Dow Hotel Co., said he questioned the judgment of candidates who posted inappropriate information that was visible to him — and he wouldn’t want to hire them.

Some others, including Alan Momeyer, VP of HR at Loews Corp., said they had better things to do than “trolling the Internet” looking for such information. “What is extremely offensive about someone in their 20s having a drink?” he asked.

Even when you’re not looking for information, however, you can sometimes find it — such as discovering from a Facebook status that a supervisor is dating a subordinate — but many of the panelists said HR professionals should forget about the medium. Just treat the matter the same as if they had learned the information otherwise, they said.

“Technology is just the means that exposes and creates that conversation. … It could easily happen over email or any other form,” said Robert Mellwig, senior vice president of human resources at Destination Hotels & Resorts.

As for social media policies, two attorney panelists — Paul Wagner, a shareholder at Shea Stokes Roberts & Wagner, and Gregg Gilman, a partner at Davis & Gilbert — disagreed on whether such policies should include any reference to the right of employees to criticize the company via the Internet, per recent National Labor Relations Board rulings.

Wagner thought HR should include a provision that requires such criticism to be “done respectfully.” Gilman disagreed, saying “respectfully” was too “ambiguous” a term, and that “at the end of the day … [the issue will devolve to] ‘did the employee go over the line?’ ”

Patricia Smith, senior VP of organizational design and HR at The Leading Hotels of the World, said HR should not take an “unempowered approach,” which results in being reactive instead of proactive in regard to social media.

“It’s here. It’s going to happen. It’s happening. Why not take an empowered approach?” she said.

Greg Smith, executive vice president of HR at Denihan Hospitality Group, agreed: “If you don’t embrace it, you risk losing your competitive edge.”

When talking about the changing demographics of the workforce, the discussion focused on the diverse needs of all ages, from Gen Yers beginning their work careers and those pre-retirement workers who can’t afford to retire, to mid-career employees who don’t want to uproot their families and relocate to continue their career progressions.

Mellwig said his organization has explored a “teacher pay model,” in one area that needs seasonal managers, so they are paid for nine months of work instead of 12 months. The flexibility suits the managers as well as the organization, he said.

Debbie Brown, VP of HR for the Americas at Four Seasons, said there are 11 moves generally required before an individual is made a general manager, but her organization has been looking at a “compressed career path,” which would require only four, providing for some of the progressions to take place without a relocation.

Several of the HR leaders spoke about the need to customize jobs, as well as the need to forget generational stereotypes — and focus on the individual and his or her career aspirations and abilities.

“We sometimes typecast our team members” said Momeyer, “… and we don’t look at them as individual talents … .”

HR Leaders Discuss Talent Development

Although the HR executives on the “Re-Building the Bench” morning plenary session at the HR in Hospitality™ Conference represented organizations with 3,800 properties (and adding about 100 more properties each year), 55 properties (hoping to be 60 in a few months) and 16 hotels (hoping to be 25 in a few years), their thoughts on talent development and succession planning were not all that dissimilar.

And the baseline underlying all of the talent strategies was culture — especially in the hospitality industry, where each property/brand has its own personality and thus, its own sense of customer service and required competencies.

“When we look for talent … it really is dependent on the brand,” says Greg Smith, executive vice president of human resources for Denihan Hospitality Group (which has 16 hotels). “I am often amazed at how often really, really smart people fail because they don’t fit in.”

He was joined on the panel by Leslie Lerude, vice president of people and culture at Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants (55 properties) and Matt Schuyler, chief human resources office of Hilton Worldwide (need I give you the number?). The session was moderated by JoAnne Kruse, founder of HCpartners and Conference program chair.

Recruiting and developing talent, Schuyler says, can be extremely sophisticated in the United States, but quite different around the world. Globally, it can range from setting up street fairs in China to try to find potential workers —  while educating them about customer service — to Saudi Arabia, where Hilton will be opening a 9,000-room hotel in Mecca staffed only by Muslim men; a property that can never be visited by senior leaders as they are not allowed in that city because of their religion.

Lerude says Kimpton — which has a corporate psychologist on staff — has long believed an emphasis on personal development is the key to happy employees. Happy employees, she says, are engaged and focused on customer satisfaction, which translates into a successful organization.

She also believes too much focus has been spent on employee engagement, when emphasis should really be placed on “trust.” Hospitality workers are overwhelmingly engaged in their work, she says, but far, far fewer trust their employers or senior leaders.

And when senior leaders see that, via survey results or metrics, they often will make changes to attempt to rebuild that trust, she says.

Schuyler agrees the Great Places to Work Trust Index — which Kimpton uses as well — offers “more actionable” information than employee engagement surveys.

As for developing talent and creating succession plans, none of the HR leaders on the panel thought it was helpful to publicly designate certain individuals as “high potentials.”

“Different leaders need different things,” Smith says, “and they need different things at different stages in their careers,” while Schuyler notes a hi-po could stop being a hi-po after “a cycle or two.”

Lerude says that, while the word is not used, the organization’s actions — such as inclusion in a mentoring program or being asked to open a new facility — show individuals their value to the organization.

And developing talent in the HR function is really no different than other departments, Schuyler says, noting that the “litmus test” for success is when other departments try to poach HR talent.

Responding to Union Organizing

With the hospitality industry being a strong target for union organizing, experts offered HR leaders some tips on ways to effectively respond to such attempts during an afternoon session at the HR in Hospitality™ Conference on Monday.

But, be warned, said Jana Loewinger, vice president of employee relations at Darden Restaurants, if management waits until there is an organizing campaign going on to pay attention to employees, it’s probably already too late.

“When you are in a union campaign,” she says, “you have lost the credibility … . You can’t make amends at that point.”

There are three typical ways in which HR leaders typically deal with union-organizing attempts, says David Sherwyn, a professor at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, which co-produced the conference along with Cornell’s ILR School and Human Resource Executive Conferences™.

There is the traditional, old-school way in which the union attempts to persuade workers to sign cards or a petition, followed by a secret-ballot election in a month or so; there is a card check neutrality agreement that gives the union access to workers on the property; or the union attempts to convince the company’s management to accept a card check neutrality agreement.

When operating under a card check neutrality agreement, a simple majority of workers must sign cards seeking union representation for the union to become authorized. An election is not required.

Regardless of method, the first step HR leaders should take when a union seeks to organize workers is to work with managers on a “gut check poll,” says Celeste Yeager, a partner at Gandere Wynne Sewell. That’s when managers are asked to pinpoint how each of their direct reports feels about joining a union.

And if the manager doesn’t know, Loewinger says, “you really don’t have a very good manager.”

HR leaders should also work with the company’s managers to identify the issues that are driving employees to consider joining the union. It could be something simple and easily remedied — something employees had been asking for but had been frustrated by management — or it could be poor management — and be remedied by the firing of the general manager “because the general manager is a nightmare,” Sherwyn says.

But it’s important, Loewinger says, for companies to “step back and admit your mistakes or your failures … . It’s being up-front. It’s being honest.”

Yeager notes that “when [employees] feel like they are part of the process and they can come to you, they will not seek some third party to come in.”

Another effective tactic, she says, is to ask managers and other employees who are not pro-union to share with other employees their thoughts and experiences with unions; to talk about why having a union wouldn’t be the best option for your particular organization.

HR in Hospitality Conference® Opens

A “siege” by UNITE HERE protesters outside the Hyatt Regency San Francisco offers “a custom made labor-management learning environment” for the more than 300 attendees of the HR in Hospitality® Conference and Exposition, said Claude Werder of HRE Conferences, as he opened the three-day event this morning.

But it wasn’t union organizing or management that was the topic of the opening plenary session, which featured Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre Hotels in San Francisco (right). Instead, he spoke of the importance of employee satisfaction on corporate profitability.

For that to happen, individual employees must move beyong thinking of their jobs as a “job” or even as a “career,” but instead to find a “calling” in their professions.

That “self actualization,” based on Abraham Maslow’s theories, can be depicted by a pyramid that starts with money (the base motivation), moves up to recognition (which breeds loyalty and a desire to succeed) and peaks with meaning (which inspires the individual worker to find a “calling” in the work).

It’s those “abstract and intangible” aspects that create fulfilled employees, which, in turn, creates satisfied and loyal customers, says Conley, who recently stepped down as executive chairman of his company, which has merged with Thompson Hotels and is seeking to great a global brand of boutique hotels.

“You are in human resources or whatever you call it,” he told the audience, ” … and quite often you are diminished by the powers that be as if you are not important, primarily because we get very caught up in all of the rules.”

He reminded the audience that they “got into the job because of the calling of it and the meaning of it” and that they should endeavor always to remember that as they deal with the “job, the bureaucracy and the BS.”

It’s HR’s job, he says, to “help to convince the senior leadership why culture change will have a positive impact” on profitability,” noting that it’s proven that employee happiness “actually has a major impact on performance.”

The conference is produced by Human Resource Executive Conferences™ in conjunction with Cornell University School of Hotel Administration and Cornell University ILR School.

Talking with the C-Suite

Unlike many conferences which see a huge drop off on the final day, such was not the case for the final two sessions at the HR in Hospitality® Conference & Expo on Wednesday.

One session, which I already blogged about, brought in the NLRB’s Craig Becker. The other one brought in three hospitality executives to offer their thoughts on HR and people policies.

Some of the tidbits from that session:

* David Moran, managing director of Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, one of the top five grossing restaurants in the country, told the audience his 14-restaurant organization (Clyde’s of Gallery Place) has no HR department.

Instead, the organization offers “one on one management” as well as a lot of upfront training with managers and staff – all based on Ken Blanchard’s One Minute Manager, he said. “We preach it. We live it and our members embrace it.”

* Especially in hospitality companies, employees are crucial to profit and guest satisfaction. John Longstreet, president and CEO of Quaker Steak and Lube restaurants, said he discovered that a long time ago and was able, with the help of some university researchers, to statistically prove it. Such metrics are key in convincing senior leadership on HR initiatives.

* When it comes to hiring employees, look for attitude, said Conrad Wangeman, area vice president for Northeast USA and Canada for Hilton Worldwide. “If you get someone who has the right attitude, you can train for the skills,” he said.

* Another tip, from Longstreet, be transparent. Tell employees as much as you can, not as little as you can get away with.

* And one from Moran: Be truthful in performance appraisals. Honest feedback lets employees know that the organization cares about them and their development.

Facing His Inquisitors

Craig Becker, the controversial, recess-appointed member of the National Labor Relations Board, may have felt like Daniel in the lion’s den as he faced members of the hospitality industry in a well-attended final session of the HR in Hospitality® Conference & Expo in Washington, but he didn’t show it.

And, while he grounded his answers in the statutory requirements of the National Labor Relations Act, he did offer some nuggets to the group, who, at one point, applauded loudly after a woman asked, “Where’s the protection for employers?” as she decried the tactics of unions against the Omni in San Francisco – because the union wants Omni’s Sacramento, Calif., property to adopt a card-check neutrality agreement.

Those tactics included calling brides-to-be and threatening to throw ink on their dresses if they held their receptions at the hotel, she said.

Becker said the NLRA offers some protections to employers, including making it illegal for unions to physically or economically coerce employees to vote for a union or to illegally advance secondary-type activities such as boycotts.

Threatening to throw ink on dresses or creating so much noise that patrons can’t sleep is coercion, he said.

Although many in the hospitality industry – and other industries – fear card-check neutrality agreements, they may be suffering anxiety for little reason, said Harry Katz, dean of Cornell’s ILR School, who was also on the panel.

 “Both sides in this debate about card check are exaggerating the impact … on unionization rates,” he said, referring to a study from Canada that showed a ”slight increase [in unionization after card check] but not a massive revolution.”

While there have been no similar studies in the United States, anecdotal results seem similar, Katz said.

Panelist Paul Wagner, a shareholder of Stokes Roberts & Wagner, noted that voting results are less certain in smaller markets as opposed to metropolitan areas where unions are entrenched.

As for card check, in general, Katz said those who complain about it are avoiding the fact that it was part of the original NLRA, smilingly calling Wagner and panel moderator David Sherwyn, an associate professor of law at Cornell School of Hotel Administration , “sore losers” for holding that opinion.

Katz brought up the question of whether it was legal for unions to insist that hotel owners or operators require prospective franchisees to include a card check neutrality agreement– or that they not be permitted to become a franchisee of a branded hotel facility.

There’s no easy answer, Becker said. It would depend on the nature of the entities involved, the purpose and the details of any agreement. “It’s a good question but one which requires quite a bit of analysis and detailed facts to answer,” he said.

Another fear, which has been expressed a few times during the conference, was that the NLRB would drastically shorten the timeframe between when a petition seeking unionization is filed and a secret election is held that were of the most interest.

Becker said there is a 42-day standard now, which is an administrative directive from the board’s general counsel to regional directors; it’s not enforceable as a matter of law.

With a Democratically controlled NLRB, some in the hospitality industry fear a drastically shorter timeframe — to the detriment of employers.

Under some polite cross examination Wagner, Becker said the board has set no timeframe targets, but “we could theoretically affect the timing of elections.” He said it was “a debatable question.”

With Bated Breath …

Employment attorneys don’t expect the U.S. Supreme Court to approve (they hope!) the 1.5 million member class-action certification for the lawsuit against Wal-Mart (which was argued recently), but they fear the court will issue an opinion that will not be a complete rejection of the claim.

“If it’s a complete revocation, it’s ‘no harm, no foul.’ If it’s somewhere in between, it could have a big effect on Title VII and for large employers, it’s going to change how they operate,” said David Sherwyn, associate professor of law at Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, who moderated a session on “Hot Topics in Labor and Employment Law” at the HR in Hospitality Conference today.

If a decentralized pay and promotion program, such as was in effect at Wal-Mart, can be cited in a class-action suit, then what can’t? he asked.

Leslie Silverman, a partner with Proskauer in Washington, who used to serve on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said “there’s just not a lot of ‘there’ there” in the lawsuit, noting some stores — and even some entire states — were not mentioned in charges filed by the plaintiffs.

She also noted it was impossible to opt-out of the lawsuit; all women were required participants.

“If this is the trend of how little it takes to get where we are, it’s a disaster [for companies],” Silverman said.

The decision is expected to be issued in June.

Avoiding Lawsuits

Compliance with the law will only take you so far.

Sure, you can argue over whether mandatory arbitration is a good way to go (or even requiring employees to agree to non-jury trials, as suggested by Kirsten Hotchkiss, SVP of Enterprise Compliance and employment counsel for Wyndham Worldwide), but the best way to avoid a lawsuit is to treat employees fairly.

“I like to rely on good [HR] practices,” said John Longstreet, president and CEO at Quaker Steak and Lube restaurants, during the “legal issues” segment of the Cornell University HR Executive Summit at the HR in Hospitality® Conference in Washington.

Gregg Gillman, partner and co-chair of the Labor and Employment Practices at Davis & Gilbert in New York, agreed that “best practices cure everything.”

As for whether mandatory arbitration is the best way to go, the panelists disagreed.

The down side: The decision can’t be appealed. Hearsay evidence is accepted. There is no summary judgment. Too often, the arbitrator will “split the baby,” in an effort to offer solace to both sides. Managers and supervisors often see it as a loss of their authority.

The up side: It’s usually cheaper. It may persuade plaintiffs’ lawyers to settle the case. If it is part of a robust process, disagreements will often get settled before they ever get to arbitration. It’s a private process; no publicity.

Plus, said Paul Wagner, a shareholder at Stokes Roberts & Wagner, plaintiffs’ attorneys generally hate arbitration and want to take their clients’ issues to court.

“That fact alone tells me we are doing something right,” he said.

Thoughts on the HR Function

There were lots of thoughts to absorb from the Cornell University HR Executive Summit, held as part of the HR in Hospitality® Conference at the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington this morning.

It was a huge roundtable discussion, with 16 panelists, but moderator Bruce Tracey, associate professor of management at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration did a good job of engaging the entire group and keeping the conversations pithy.

Some food for thought:

*HR Hit Hard: At the Four Seasons, the HR department “took a disparate hit” of a 20-percent reduction in headcount, said Debbie Brown, its VP of HR for the Americas. Overall, the organization lost 4 percent of its workforce.

HR was hit even harder at Hilton Worldwide, where there was a 40-percent global cut, said Barbara Holkamp, senior vice president of HR consulting, who said the HR function focused on providing simple, automated toolkits and models related to people practices and focused on “top grading,” meaning talent development.

She noted that the reductions did not affect hotel-based HR directors – and that guest-service satisfaction scores remained “very high.”

Brown said the organization looked at outsourcing transactional work, “anything that is not mission critical” and that “learning took a real hit.”

*Doing More with Less: In a survey result taken by attendees, 100 percent said their organizations are doing more with fewer resources. In another question, asking for important HR issues for 2011, retention (23 percent) came in first (if you don’t include other, which received 28 percent of the votes); followed by recruitment (21 percent); productivity (18 percent); and compensation (10 percent).

* Adding Instead of Cutting Training: At the Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, the recession actually prompted “the most comprehensive service training program than we ever had in our company’s history at a time when many of our competitors were cutting back or cutting training all together,” said Carolyn Clark, SVP of HR.

But the difference was the program was led by operations, she said, not HR.

“We were really looking for behavioral change to drive business results,” Clark said. The workers completed a self-audit at the end of the training program and created an action plan that was integrated into future performance reviews.

This year, she said, a refresher course will use 30 actual case studies drawn from guest survey results.

* Finding Talent: Recruiting “actually got harder for us” during the downturn, said Greg Smith, executive vice president of HR for Denihan Hospitality Group. “Yes, there were more people looking for work but the people we needed were harder to find.”

So, he shifted the recruiting function down to individual properties and further down, to individual functions, so room attendants were involved in looking for room attendants; front desk managers looked for front desk managers, and so on.

“We have had some pretty good results,” he said.

* Salary Grumbling on the Rise: Don’t expect workers to accept doing more with less forever, the panelists said, especially if their pay is not seeing an increase.

“Their patience is wearing thin,” said Laura FitzRandolph, SVP and assistant general counsel at Interstate Hotels & Resorts. “You have to manage expectations,” but noted that, for the hospitality industry, “the climb back is going to be longer than the fall into the basement.”

* Just-in-Time Staffing: John Longstreet, president and CEO of Quaker Steak and Lube, said he remembers when one major brand laid off 130 managers in a single day – and he wondered how an organization could be so overstaffed.

“I am trying to do more with the same,” he said, noting that he would prefer to under-staff and over-pay. He also has invested in technology to make it easier for his restaurant managers to access the information they need and therefore be able to spend more time with team members.

* Preparing for Retirement: Want to engage your workers? Ask them when they will retire. That’s the advice of Alan Momeyer, VP of HR at Loews Corp.

“There’s nothing wrong with that question,” he said. Plus, it will require them to think about designating successors and then making sure those successors are qualified to step in when necessary.

Those conversations will cascade through the organization — and that’s what results in engagement, he said.