Tips for Taming Turnover
By Michael C. Sturman Associate Dean for Faculty Development, Cornell Center for Hospitality Research | March 09, 2014
Hospitality managers and executives have taken many steps over the years to ameliorate one of the industry's greatest challenges: rampant, unwanted employee turnover. But the results have been mixed, at best. From the outset, we'll stipulate that some employee turnover is necessary and even healthy for the organization. But we all know that unbridled turnover creates a churning effect that damages staff morale and can interfere with core service procedures. In this article, we examine some of the factors that seem to drive turnover. Our goal is to provide a management tool kit that may assist with ameliorating the turnover challenge.
Having mentioned morale, let's start with the effects of a "turnover atmosphere" on otherwise satisfied employees. In a two-year study, Cornell professor Timothy Hinkin worked with coauthors Brooks Holtom and Dong Liu to document the connection between employee job satisfaction and turnover intentions over time. In a report published by the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research, this team collected data from 5,270 employees in 175 business units of one large hospitality company over a period of two years. Studying people's attitudes over time provides a strong mechanism for determining the reasons for turnover, and you'll see that several of the studies we discuss here include a time element.
Not surprisingly, this study found that changes in an individual's level of satisfaction affect that person's turnover decisions. But it's not as simple as that, because we know that people stay in jobs that they dislike, and people leave jobs that they say they like. One cause of this appears to be that an individual's satisfaction is partly driven by the overall changes in satisfaction in the person's work unit. So, there's a "contagion effect" that works like this: As the work environment becomes more positive and overall satisfaction in the unit increases over time, fewer individuals leave their jobs. In this positive situation, even unhappy employees are boosted as other workers become more satisfied. However, there's a catch to this picture. The environment must be coherently positive, with an overall positive feeling. An environment with mixed employee feelings does not have this same effect, even when some workers are gaining in happiness. Still, when an employee is out of step with prevailing work attitudes, this discrepancy appears to affect the person's job satisfaction and turnover likelihood. Dissatisfied employees become more happy when they're with a satisfied work group, and the reverse is also the case. By tracking changes in employee satisfaction, managers might gain a sense of whether there's a danger of turnover caused when otherwise happy employees encounter a work group that has declining satisfaction.
Speaking of managers and supervisors, it's clear that much turnover hinges on those critical positions. Numerous studies have focused on the importance of supervisory support in employee satisfaction. For instance, a study of hotels in Cameroon by Osman Karatepe, of Eastern Mediterranean University, highlights the importance of supervisors' support of employees. This study examined the attitudes of 212 full-time frontline hotel employees in upscale hotels. This study also used two surveys, although they were separated by only a month. The study was testing job embeddedness, in which the employee identifies strongly with the job. By taking two surveys a month apart the study could begin to assess the results of job embeddedness on voluntary turnover. With supervisory support, job embeddedness in turn encourages such essential job outcomes as effective employee performance and reduced employee turnover. The chief implication for the hotel industry is that supervisors need to be given the tools to encourage and assist their employees. Additionally, the hotel can establish human resource policies that give employees a chance to work as teams and become even more embedded in the organization.
Without a doubt, the front line is a hot spot for employee turnover, given the pressures created by customer contact. Employees can gain great satisfaction from fulfilling guests' requests, and many workers relish the challenge of developing creative solutions in the course of guest service. At the same time, the need to deviate from standard practice creates considerable stress, particularly for employees who must have supervisory approval for any such deviation. This was the case in a study of 302 front-line employees in three five-star Hong Kong hotels. Researcher Flora Chiang, of Hong Kong Baptist University, and her colleagues found that high variability of job demands diminished these employees' job satisfaction. However, giving the employees additional discretion boosted their job satisfaction, particularly when companies also improved rewards and training. Perhaps the lesson here is that employees need to be familiar with standard procedures and also have the knowledge and authority to move beyond those processes when guests require it.
Another source of workplace dissatisfaction is conflict, which many think is a reason for employee turnover. It turns out that not all conflict is created equal, as explained in a study by Alice H.Y. Chon and Wilco W. Chan of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. They surveyed 265 employees at Chinese hotels regarding two forms of conflict: team task conflict and team relationship conflict. They found that task conflict, in which employees are seeking the best way to handle a job, can be beneficial, especially when people feel a sense of accomplishment when the task is complete. In contrast, interpersonal conflict was a barrier to accomplishment and caused greater dissatisfaction. We know the hospitality workplace is a stressful environment, and both kinds of conflict cause work-related stress. But some of that stress actually boosts performance, since employees are working their way to a successful task conclusion. For managers and supervisors, the job is to identify the sources of workplace stress and address the negative interpersonal conflict.