Protecting Against Discrimination Claims When Dealing with a Diverse Workforce

By Andrew Glincher Office Managing Partner, Nixon Peabody LLP | October 28, 2008

There is no industry in which these questions create more of a real-world challenge than the hospitality industry. With many layers of employees - ranging from management to entertainers to housekeeping and maintenance staff, whose formal education may differ and who may be relatively new to this country - the hotel industry has a very diverse personnel structure.

While certainly yielding many benefits, this diversity of culture and background can present significant challenges when it comes to labor and employment issues. It can also expose management to a far greater number of employment-related disputes than may be found in many other industries, making it particularly important for hotel owners and operators to take steps to ensure they are doing everything possible to comply with labor and employment laws and to create a harmonious and productive working environment that will have the side benefit of mitigating the potential for claims and lawsuits from issues such as gender or racial discrimination and sexual and racial harassment.

Over the years, employee manuals have become commonplace in the corporate world. It is essential that hotel management have appropriate posters and have such a manual and ensures distribution to all employees and managers. The manual must include the company's policies with respect to and prohibiting harassment and discrimination, and state the company's practices and procedures for reporting and for investigating and dealing with complaints of inappropriate workplace behavior. In addition, a series of training sessions, repeated annually, for all employees, from the most senior to the most junior, can be extremely helpful and assists in raising awareness of inappropriate behavior . Having a professional meet with and interact with all level of staff can highlight potential problem areas before they flare up, make management and other employees aware of their responsibilities, and give problem employees one-on-one guidance on what they can and cannot do. Not only do employee manuals and follow-up training make policies clear, but, in the event that a complaint is lodged against the company, it is clear that the employer has made a good faith effort to prevent illegal and inappropriate behavior.

Hotel owners and operators should also consider conducting periodic diversity audits as part of a comprehensive program.

Typically performed by outside professionals, diversity audits provide an excellent tool for identifying potential trouble spots within a diverse workplace. Not only do such audits yield valuable information about gaps in a company's labor and employment practices, they also can offer a roadmap for improving the environment. If a claim is filed against the company, such proactive efforts can also be a key element of a defense - providing additional evidence of the company's good faith efforts to ensure diversity.

Significantly, we have also found that setting up tiered dispute resolution systems can be an important tool in resolving workplace issues and avoiding litigation. With such a system, built into the organization, there would be a policy that enables any employee with a harassment or discrimination complaint to have such complaint heard internally by a superior. If that initial attempt does not resolve the problem, the complaint would move to a second stage of dispute resolution where the complaint would be heard by another hotel official. Our experience has been that, even though many complaints are serious, they can be resolved if the parties are required to talk about them, and if there are structures in place with experienced people to carry out the process. It is likely that the workplace will improve materially, that it will be known that there is a safe place to bring problems, and that, by having a place to talk, real issues will be brought into the open and therefore be capable of resolution.

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Guest Service: A Culture of YES

In a recent global consumers report, 97% of the participants said that customer service is a major factor in their loyalty to a brand, and 76% said they view customer service as the true test of how much a company values them. And since there is no industry more reliant on customer satisfaction than the hotel industry, managers must be unrelenting in their determination to hire, train and empower the very best people, and to create a culture of exceptional customer service within their organization. Of course, this begins with hiring the right people. There are people who are naturally service-oriented; people who are warm, empathetic, enthusiastic, pleasant, thoughtful and optimistic; people who take pride in their ability to solve problems for the hotel guests they are serving. Then, those same employees must be empowered to solve problems using their own judgment, without having to track down a manager to do it. This is how seamless problem solving and conflict resolution are achieved in guest service. This willingness to empower employees is part of creating a Culture of Yes within an organization.  The goal is to create an environment in which everyone is striving to say “Yes”, rather than figuring out ways to say, “No”. It is essential that this attitude be instilled in all frontline, customer-facing, employees. Finally, in order to ensure that the hotel can generate a consistent level of performance across a wide variety of situations, management must also put in place well-defined systems and standards, and then educate their employees about them. Every employee must be aware of and responsible for every standard that applies in their department. The April issue of the Hotel Business Review will document what some leading hotels are doing to cultivate and manage guest satisfaction in their operations.