Do We Need to Reimagine Hospitality Industry Norms to Attract and Retain Employees?

Juliette Gust

By Juliette Gust

May 9, 2023

A Collaboration of Cayuga Hospitality Consultants

Experts report on the hospitality industry’s “sacred cows” and the need to conduct a careful evaluation of each to determine whether they should remain, be forced to evolve, or eliminated altogether.  

To help start this evaluation process, Cayuga Hospitality’s organizational development consultants shared their thoughts on the hospitality industry norms requiring careful consideration if they are to continue as a common practice in today’s tight labor market.

Management-Related Norms

  • Hotels often have a strict multi-layer hierarchy that is at odds with how Millennials and Gen Y & Z see their roles within the workplace.
  • The work culture in hospitality in some countries has a negative reputation that few choose to work in the industry as a career.
  • In addition, hospitality training is not given the credit of it being a skill and is even considered an unskilled trade in many countries.
  • Asset owners are not reinvesting in the product and the employees are expected to create wonders with an inferior quality product.

Labor-Related Norms

  • Inflation is the “elephant” in the room worldwide, with supply chain issues and millions of unfilled jobs.
  • Immigrant labor can no longer be relied upon to fill in the gap in some countries.
  • The double-edged ironic sword for hospitality and other industries struggling to fill hourly jobs is that difficulties of finding low-paid workers may vanish.  Still, customers will have disappeared in corresponding numbers.  In other words, people currently shunning hotel jobs may never come back,
  • In some countries, a 29-hour week employment term of hiring with no written contract is common.  This may preclude the employee from qualifying for certain benefits.

Potential Solutions to Create Better Workplaces

The solution is to create an attractive workplace, which may be easier for a single business that can afford to be nimble and flexible, especially when the competitors’ cultures remain slow to make positive changes.  This aligns with what a journalist said recently following the Australian general election: “All you need to do these days to win an election is not be the awful bloke.”

But to attract this movement of disillusioned people who want fundamental change, merely tweaking salaries and working hours is not enough. Unattractive employers conforming to the way “we’ve always done things” are out of touch.  The inherited organizational science has helped perpetuate this status quo, with top leadership in power suit and tie, exercising command and control through autocratic top-down layers of micromanagement.

The Uphill Battle in Hospitality

Hospitality struggles with its traditional culture of repetitive work and uniforms, unsocial hours, and low pay. This forms the perfect storm to chase away talent.  Hospitality has relied on junior leadership imbued with a hospitality service calling to supervise a disempowered workforce that has few choices.  

Top hotel school graduates have shunned this calling for decades, choosing careers as consultants or leveraging their perceived customer-centric orientation in higher paid sectors. This is the grim truth for the hotel sector, which cascades to being unattractive for new breeds of customer who spurn hotel service distinctions, preferring the casual Airbnb model.  

Top Hospitality Leadership Characteristics

To attract and retain talent, companies must have a compassionate, warm, genuine and loving culture.  Top leadership must be this culture ensuring this way of being is cascaded to leaders at all levels. Faking it with annual parties and an annual bonus won’t cut it. With a desirable culture, each person is constantly fired up and ready to go.  

A workforce sized to fit the business is more productive, providing service and hospitality excellence. Each is inspired to not let the team down. In hotels, such cultures exist as a subculture of one department, and it takes a true leader, courageously out of step with the prevailing culture of cold and autocratic micromanagement, to imbue the entire organization with these heartfelt traits.  

How to Attract Talent with Culture

A hospitable culture attracts talented individuals to invest a significant portion of their life in delivering the brand promise.  Such endowment in a hotel is worth a thousand times more than mere passive shareholder capital.  Empowered and engaging hotel talent directly causes the commercial outcome and the asset value.  You never get that from force, coercion, or power. Well-meaning employment policies and opinion surveys are rendered mute in the face of the prevailing culture of how a hotel is perceived by its employees.

Critical Ingredients to Ensure a Hospitality Culture Works

  • Authenticity and integrity: Strategy execution, brand values, and physical product align to charm consistently.  When every employee is fired up and extraordinary, all stakeholders feel it.
  • Leadership behavior: From management to board members and investors, anyone who influences the business is always required to be warm and engaging.  People accustomed to power do not necessarily appreciate this, and those who unconsciously mimic the stereotypical inflexible leader depicted in action movies will destroy the business.
  • Leadership actions:  
    • No raised voices. No gossip about colleagues at any level. Request rather than give orders. Correct and coach people in private. Invite feedback: “What do you need?” Involve people in problem-solving and recognize and celebrate them. Publicly acknowledge employees when they get it right.
    • Lead above all else, with dignity and respect.
  • Don’t manage. Lead as if you own it: Create an inclusive, safe culture of open communication and empowerment, where every employee feels valued and respected.
  • Leadership relationship with ownership: If owners feel management is missing its goal, provide regular honest briefings of what you are doing and why it is in their best interests.  Confront owner discord head-on with a mindset of, if this was my hotel and investment, what can I do to ensure I am 100% satisfied?  It is a choice between fear or hospitality; you can’t have both. 

Positive Hospitality Industry (Re)Branding

It should be everyone’s goal to “rebrand” the role of a hospitality employee and do away with some of the traditions that no longer serve the industry well.

These may include cookie-cutter, gender-specific uniforms, never-ending management trainee programs, and the dreaded 90-day probationary period. They should also include the removal of anything closely resembling insincerity – for example, are we really Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen?

Hire for the Right Skills

While it is assumed that hospitality skills are not transferrable, the hospitality professionals have skills that are most desired in an organization today, especially post Covid. These skills are not necessarily academic, but they are vital for any business to succeed.

  • Attention to detail while multiskilling. A skill that is almost mastered by hospitality professionals. Imagine managing expectations of a 1,000 VIP-guest party while managing 50 staff and ensuring perfection, complaint handling and on time delivery.
  • Problem Solving. A skill that we all have, although hospitality professionals problem solve “artistically.” They use high levels of listening and sometimes even hear what is unsaid. They acquire listening skills through constant guest retention training.
  • Jack of All and Master of Customer service. A skill that enables them to strike a conversation with anyone on any topic anywhere in the world. Imagine serving a customer (internal or external) by being able to speak about their interests.
  • Strategy and Innovation. With ever evolving scenario and exposure, the guest wants more. The hospitality industry develops employees who know how to think on their feet, stay calm in fast-paced environments and recognize the best ways to satisfy hard-to-please customers. All these skills come into play for a wide range of roles in any corporate organization.

Four Leading Cayuga Hospitality Organizational Culture and Human Resources Consultants who collaborated on this article are Juliette Gust, Mark Keith, Anjani Gandhi and Robert Gary Dodds.

About the Panel

Juliette Gust

Juliette Gust is the Founder and President and of Ethics Suite, and a member of Cayuga Hospitality Consultants, a network of independent consultants specializing in hospitality/lodging. Ms. Gust has personally conducted or led more than 2,000 investigations spanning 75 countries and has advised on more than 10,000 employee ethics line reports. She developed and was the Director of the Fraud & Investigations team for a global hospitality company with 180,000 employees in more than 100 countries. She also served as the Project Manager and a core member of the company’s Anti-Corruption compliance program, leading the development of a best-in-class global anti-corruption risk assessment, audit plan, and third-party due diligence program.


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