We Have Met the Cynic — And It is Us.

According to one dictionary the essence of  a cynic is that or she is “bitterly or sneeringly distrustful, contemptuous, or pessimistic.”   Indeed there is likely no single employee personality trait more corrosive to a positive working environment than cynicism.

In our continuing search for an ideal employee it no doubt follows that every general manager, corporate executive and HR director already get that cynicism is poison.

Even in small doses, once exposed to unsuspecting fellow employees or guests, the cynic is like a fine mist of carbon dioxide:  in the air, it’s virtually unseen but we are nevertheless keenly aware of its effect as oxygen (a positive force) is involuntarily sucked from us, and our otherwise positive, ambitious, guest-focused natures are, even if only momentarily, subjected to an insidious attack of self-doubt.  Once is bad enough:  repeated contact with cynics can prove debilitating — to an entire organization.

Where does all this venom originate?   Is there any one person in a company responsible for its growth? Academicians point to chronic job dissatisfaction as a root cause, but what is the catalyst?

Leaders, First Heal Thyself

Cynicism surely can arise from an employee’s continually unmet needs; for example, in seeing the obvious and wondering why no higher-ups notice — or, if they notice, why nothing gets done.   Cynicism can also emerge from distrust, a feeling that words — promises — are often at odds with the results.

More than one expert has suggested that leaders can generate not just goodwill but an atmosphere of trust by first examining their own behavior.  Cornell University School of Hotel Administration associate professor Tony Simons is the author of The Integrity Dividend: Leading by the Power of Your Word.  His book is a road map for managers who want to spread trust.

Simons shows that studies have yielded firm correlation between  management’s integrity and the trust it engenders from employees.  Integrity and profitability are linked, he says.  Calling integrity “the single strongest controllable performance factor a hotel has”  Simons offers valuable suggestions for our industry’s leaders on heading off cynicism among employees. Here are a few:

  • Get into the habit of recording your commitments immediately so that you don’t forget them.  
  • Promise less but do it more often. 
  • Pick only a few key values, repeat them over and over, prioritize them, talk about where they fit into the big picture, and celebrate the victories on those values—consistently.  
  • Once you adopt an idea, commit to it.  Don’t abandon it a year later.  
  • Balance change with continuity.
  • Honor your commitments to yourself.  This will strengthen your sense of personal integrity, which will increase your ability to live by your word in general—and increase your personal charisma.

Unions, lawyers and dissident employees are often criticized for fomenting workplace crises and then exploiting employee cynicism by blaming management for its origin.  Which comes first, we have to wonder? The crises or the employee cynicism?  How does cynicism get a toehold, much less flourish, if employees are unified behind a hospitality company’s leadership?

Through his pointers on  how to increase trust in management through improved management integrity, Tony Simons illustrates how unwary bosses create cynics.  Management consultant Chris McChesney concurs, saying that leaders “tend to be their own worst enemy, particularly the ambitious, creative ones.” Like Tony Simons, McChesney calls out leaders who try to take on too much, who “always have more good ideas than the capacity to execute”.  The constant flow of ideas from the boss can create an “execution gap”, says McChesney.  That gap, where ideas die or are picked up again and again, never to be realized, can itself be a root cause of employee cynicism.

Banishing the Cynics
Simons and McChesney provide a recurring theme:  in order to banish cynicism we should all talk less and should focus instead on actions.  If they are right, what kind of actions should we take?   Here’s a short list:
  • Pare down our annual list of strategic goals to the few that are the essence of our “wheelhouse”, those that are the core of what we do best, what sets our brand apart.
  • Focus on successes where every employee can become involved, where each plays a role in guest satisfaction.
  • Focus on the truth, even when it isn’t pleasant.
  • Concentrate energy on developing a leadership team who speak with one voice, whose words are trusted because they produce results.
  • Inspire leaders to care for others, to eschew ruthless behavior while still pursuing excellence, and teaching their people how to do the same.
  • Remember:  cynicism thrives where leadership stalls.
Be honest and be well.
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The Resume Creators

A recent column by The New York Times reporter Adam Bryant provides a timely reminder that the content of a job seeker’s resume is of little interest to a CEO on a mission.

Unsophisticated job seekers — we were all there once upon a time — spend countless hours on the format, suitability, meatiness and relevance of their resume. Yet here was Bob Eckert, chairman and CEO of toymaker Mattel, telling Bryant that there are two things he looks for when interviewing candidates: learning the name of a mutual acquaintance (whom Eckert will then call for a reference) is one; the other is listening to a candidate’s “stories”. And the candidate’s resume? Read on.

Recalling a job interview over thirty years earlier Eckert said he’d fretted that he’d not done well, that the CEO had only wanted to discuss Eckert’s background, his family and his interests. Eckert wasn’t even sure that the CEO had read his resume. Fast forward fifteen years. Now Eckert found himself doing the same thing from the earlier interview, using the time with a job seeker to learn whether they had shared values. And the candidate’s resume? Read on.

In a 2009 installment of “Office” Adam Bryant gleaned equally sage tidbits from John Chambers, the Chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems. Chambers recalled for Bryant that Jack Welch, the iconic former leader of General Electric, had once told him that true leaders know great setbacks, including “near death” experiences. You mean, as in nearly dying, Chambers asked. No, responded Welch. Not you. Your company! Thanks to Bryant’s probing questions as he interviewed Chambers readers learned not only about Chambers but also about Welch.

These are the “stories” that provide great insight but are typically absent from a resume. In answering another of Bryant’s questions Chambers proved this point. Diagnosed with dyslexia in childhood Chambers recalled that a teacher had given him a way to conquer his handicap: Look at it like a curve ball, she’d said. “The ball breaks the same way every time. Once you get used to it, you can handle it pretty well.” Bryant noted that as its CEO Chambers grew Cisco from a $1 billion firm to a $40 billion powerhouse. With what we know of Chambers’s early life this achievement is easier to acknowledge while astounding to consider.

While technology brings us closer to the pulse of the job market the one truth that seems not to have changed is that interviewers are most influenced by the candidate’s interview. As Eckert, Chambers and Welch have all said so well, it’s our experiences, our stories, that help form an impression of us. The interview and insightful reference-checking do the rest. And what about the resume?

Sure, a nice-looking resume can’t hurt, but let it not overshadow a candidate’s emphasis on developing the skills to tell his or her story in person. Only here will the interviewer learn what they’re really seeking — the bits of a candidate’s personality, vigor, initiative, passion and willingness to take a calculated risk that by themselves are like mini-chapters in a book, and taken together the measure of a candidate that conveys much more than a resume ever could.

Be honest and be well.

Chuck Conine operates Hospitality HR Solutions offering real answers to HR’s biggest challenges. He is a graduate of the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration and a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources whose regular column on HR issues appears monthly in the Smith Travel Research publication hotelnewsnow.com.

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In Our Employees’ Rear View Mirrors: Us

Out there in the hotels, cruise lines, casinos, restaurants and among the people in the world of finance who are interested in our industry, there is now an unmistakable stirring of renewed interest and focus on our nation’s hospitality companies. The numbers are starting to look better says Smith Travel Research, and more cities are reporting jumps in the level of inquiries about future conventions.

Unemployment remains unacceptably high, however, and many in our business are still sitting on the sidelines waiting to be recalled to work. Some have become discouraged and left the industry while other, more enterprising people have gone back to school. There’s also a group currently employed but leaning forward, ready to leap: resumes are being polished, shoes are being shined. Showing no signs of letting up: subscriptions to ubiquitous LinkedIn hospitality industry interest groups.

I’ve spoken with numerous executives and field HR people in the last six months. Virtually all of them are concerned about the potential of losing their best people, whether to a competitor or a new life in some other line of work. Of course, the chain operators and smart independents have had plans developed to counter post-recession attrition. But are they working? Only you know. Most operators are not interested in sharing on this topic; not yet, at least.

What signs indicate our employees are restless and may be looking? It can be simple things; for example, are managers asking for more “personal days” for “doctor’s appointments”? Are employees questioning when their next pay raise will be effective — and how big it will be?

These are less subtle indicators, but what early warning signs are noticeable in our most loyal, most productive and most important team members? Not many, if any at all. Which is why these “best of the best” employees remain so valuable to us — and why competitors, in a reemerging but still tight hiring market, are after them.

What practical steps can we take to reduce the loss of our star performers?

1. First, put their names on a list. Every piece of your organization should produce a list of superstars, right down to the unit level.

2. Second, prepare a personalized action plan for each name on the list. What did the recession prevent us from doing for these employees? Putting unearned cash bonuses aside for the moment, where else did we fall short in rewarding, developing and reinforcing our commitments to our stars? As to the bonuses, could we develop with the employee’s input a plan to earn an even better bonus as the employee’s performance exceeds expectations in the next two years?

3. Revisit each incentive and recognition program we currently support, and those we supported but dropped or cut back during the recession (the chains have already done this). Put whatever money and other resources we can reasonably budget into recognizing our top talent and recruiting and developing our next generation of top talent.

4. In reconfiguring incentive and reward programs consider both current and longer-term incentives, those that can be earned out over time. I suspect that our employees’ memories of the recession will fade on a timeline roughly equivalent to the renewed and lasting success of our industry.

Once our businesses are running at full speed again, there will be a legion of hospitality companies calling out our top performers, thanking those who’ve just joined us and more importantly those who remained with us during very tough times? But for now, we have work to do in knowing where we are vulnerable to losing those people.

No doubt this process will become a vetting of sorts. We’ll learn that some on our team are not the people we thought they were — not really the best, at least not anymore. But the last thing we want is to find out too late that the people waving at us in their rear view mirrors are those in whom we’d placed our faith, our trust and our organization’s future.

Be honest and be well.

Copyright 2010 by Charles A. Conine and Hospitality HR Solutions. For a list of HR services we provide and the latest hospitality HR headlines, visit us on the web at http://hospitalityhrsolutions.com.

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Nugget of Humanity

How many times have you heard someone speak of his or her “tolerance” for people of other races, religions or political persuasions? Or in conversation had little or no reply when you discuss those who arrive in America without proper documentation, are too loudly gay, bisexual or transgender, get around in a wheelchair, are dark-skinned, speak little if any English, or who simply don’t fit with the crowd where most everybody else hangs out?

Silence says much about the state of “tolerance”. These days tolerance, or what passes for it, is more likely just code for “until the laws change”. In ways little different from the days of Selma and the March on Washington in the 1960s today’s die-hards seem only too determined to drown out the voices of their undocumented, ill-educated, less fortunate and downright poor neighbors.

The recent dust-up in Arizona over illegal immigration and the rush to judgment in Washington following the airing of an edited tape of the African American USDA official allegedly quite satisfied over her having given less help than she could have to a white farmer display what tolerance in America really means today: nothing. I take that back; the opposite of tolerance is a better way to describe it.

Given America’s history of struggle for freedom from tyranny and our many past experiences with those who silently tolerated the status quo passivity should be in our rear view mirrors, a signpost of our struggle for individual acceptance, a place on the way toward diversity. Sadly it is not.

We seem stuck on tolerance as if, in today’s increasingly globally diverse neighborhood, it were really an attractive trait instead of a catalyst for those who hide behind their official titles while preaching misogyny and bigotry.

It’s beyond nutty that our political leaders seem so absorbed ad nauseum in how to “one up” each other while all the while proclaiming how tolerant they are of opposing views; even as they double down their bets on which scandal will take down the next unfortunate public official their PR folks crank out the boss’s love for tolerance.

Meanwhile those who are clearly anti-tolerance manufacture more and more hatred and isolationism, prolonging ambivalence and silence among those who fear reprisals for speaking out while providing a steady stream of vitriol and fuel for the angry and disillusioned.

Thinking that none of this rubs off on our employees is wishfully naïve. In fact it is directly absorbed by many of our employees, whether because they are dispirited by the recession or simply beset by personal issues. HR sees the consequences daily: lawsuits, unreasonable union grievances, huge work comp claims for psychological illnesses, workplace violence, drug and alcohol problems and, off the job, spousal and family abuse.

In the faces and actions of employees whose outlook is grim, opinions of others dim, and whose view of tomorrow is that it will no doubt be worse than today are the faces of all those in our society who will not put down their hard-edged swords for even a moment. Armageddon, 2012, or whatever the end of the world is to represent is, according to these folk, here already. And we wonder why there are employee relations issues in our hotels, restaurants, cruise ships, casinos, airports, commercial foodservice accounts? In an industry known for hospitality no less!

How to transform the workplace? A tough order, to be certain. Coming off a deep, scarring recession how would HR work a miracle and restore our employees’ faith in the future? Can HR help employees move beyond mere “tolerance”, first to acceptance and later, after reflection, to a point where true diversity is celebrated?

Improvement in our economic situation will no doubt help, but there are two giant “if’s” here: if the skill and bravery of the HR leader are resolutely consistent we know that in some cases an employee’s “lost” attitude can be salvaged. And if HR’s magic rubs off on the rest of the management team, whose voices must be one, many people’s mislaid faith in a person’s basic goodness and the need for us to sustain ourselves and our world together might be recaptured, a nugget of humanity replanted so that, after a period of gentle care and feeding, it can have a fighting chance to grow anew.

Be honest and be well.

Copyright 2010 by Charles A. Conine, SPHR. Visit us on the Web at www.hospitalityhrsolutions.com

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The Golden Employee

Forty-five years ago I had a newspaper route affording me a couple of bucks for spending money.  My customers were spread out all over the small village of Athens in upstate New York.  The last house on my route was owned by Karl Westphal, our village’s master baker and pastry chef.

Fridays were my collection day.  Hopping off my bike in front of a garage that Karl had transformed into a bakery I had the day’s paper under my arm.  Opening a side door with a little bell attached, I found myself immersed in Karl’s wonderland.   Immediately a fine mist enveloped me, its smell a mixture of a baker’s basics:  flour, butter, yeast, sugar and cinnamon.  Karl was usually hunched over a long butcher block table, pounding life into a huge ball of pastry dough or peering over his flour-encrusted bifocals while applying a fine line of frosting to the top of a cake.

His greeting was always perfunctory but his smile told me he and I were buddies.  I loved visiting Karl, not just because he would occasionally pass a gooey sticky bun in my direction, but because his clear mastery of the art and science of baking fascinated me, even before I understood exactly what he was accomplishing with his weathered hands and banged up old measuring cups.

About ten years later on my first job out of hotel school I met another chef whose name I’ve since forgotten but whose mannerisms, even the way he held a pastry cutter, were so powerfully reminiscent of my childhood experience.  Shaking his hand, seeing the floury meal in his palms and the dots of pastry dough where he must have wiped a hand on his face, instantly took me back into Karl Westphal’s warm and gloriously odorous garage.

It was at this moment, standing nose to nose with the pastry chef of San Francisco’s storied Hotel St. Francis, that a buried memory of Karl suddenly emerged.  It was a sign, hand lettered, that Karl had clearly wanted his customers to take note of, attached with thumb tacks to the wall over the side door to the garage.  I could see that sign in my mind’s eye as plainly as if I was standing there.   “Cheap cake”, it began, “is not good.  Good cake is not cheap.”

The aphorism, a “call to arms” for chefs everywhere, is a poignant reminder of a time when impatience, “fast” food, cost-cutting and synthetic flavorings were anathema to a person learning the baker’s trade.   It’s something else, of course, a simply drawn but often curved line, even doubling back on itself at times, that begins at the point of ignorance and ends at a place of wisdom.

Despite the collective wisdom of generations those of us who’ve spent our lives in the hospitality industry keep coming back to the obvious: quality isn’t cheap, and impatience isn’t quality.  Nowhere have we seen this lesson more obviously than in the search for the golden employee, the one person who won’t quit, won’t complain, won’t cut corners and won’t cuss at customers.

The leaders of our industry, whether hoteliers, cruise line executives, casino magnates or famed restaurateurs have each arrived at their own crafted version of one basic precept:  a golden employee is not so much found as he is molded, often from seemingly incongruous bits.  Time, patience and even exasperation all play a role in his formation, as do clear direction, frequent reward and occasional rebuke.

Training a golden employee is not sitting her down in front of a computer and saying “push that button.” Acknowledging a golden employee is not responding to his frustrated anger by sending an “approved” corporate email.  Rewarding a golden employee means not just giving a watch or a plaque, but offering the gift of time and personal attention — the same gifts that got all of us where we are today.

By the way, when was the last time you enjoyed a really, really good piece of cake?

Be honest and be well.

Copyright 2010 by Charles A. Conine and Hospitality HR Solutions. See us on the Web at www.hospitalityhrsolutions.com

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In Immigration Din, Discomfiting Voices

Since agreeing last Fall to contribute to Smith Travel Research a semi-regular column on HR in hospitality issues  none of my efforts has caused much of a stir; until last week, that is, when STR’s HotelNewsNow.com published my latest contribution, Fallout from Arizona’s immigration law.

At the moment the Arizona governor signed the new law its potential effects on our broader society were unknown.  The impact on the hospitality industry would be better understood, I thought, particularly insofar as hospitality HR directors and business owners have struggled with the issue ever since President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform & Control Act of 1986.  As that law forced employers to confront a previously unspoken topic, the magnitude of document-tampering to facilitate compliance with the law became a related, major problem and overnight the acronym IRCA became HR’s latest headache.

Thus my aim in writing the piece, a factual column in which  a number of hospitality HR executives and legal experts were interviewed, was to inform our industry’s ongoing debate on immigration, a wound most recently rubbed raw in the harsh national discourse and acrimony over health care reform.

Naively I did not anticipate one pitch of the commentary that followed my column, a lapse that is still troubling — and not because some readers disagreed with the article’s contributors.  No, it was the discomfiting, monolithic theme chosen by some respondents that miffed me, and made me think the worst.

Several of the dozen or so online comments following the column’s publication arrived from the refreshingly erudite, with points made succinctly and minus the social, racial and ethnic xenophobia that has sometimes accompanied talk of reforming our nation’s immigration laws.

For example, one HR executive quoted in my column had voiced an earnest concern over a possible effect of the new legislation:  the atmosphere in Arizona could well drive off legal immigrants, he’d said, meaning a loss of quality employees and applicants for jobs.  A respondent’s welcome retort was challenging:  “[W]hy would this change the availability of potential employees to you, unless you were concerned that other employers who previously were hiring illegals, will now be compelled to hire only applicants legally entitled to work, thus reducing the overall number of legal applicants available …”   Though the original contributor’s point was well taken the commenter’s alternative view was also intriguing.   So far, so good.

Several other thoughtful responses also struck a helpful chord, at least one a barely concealed advertisement of a company of “I-9 compliance experts … run by former hotel industry professionals.” I’m all for legitimate commercial enterprises and in this case, that one comment could save some employers some heartburn.

My article apparently proved too tantalizing for some, however, those who couldn’t resist publishing comments laced with ALL CAPS and exclamation points.  One reader said:  “So, basically Az hotels want to keep paying slave wages to illegals.  BOO HOO.  Illegals are killing AZ.”  She added:  “If the hotels were using E-Verify (which is the law in AZ) they wouldn’t have to worry about all the illegals working for them.”

Aside from her use of the caps and gratuitous nastiness I was disappointed that this reader, caught up by anger and frustration, didn’t raise a seminal question in this debate:  as Arizona employers have only been required to verify employee identity through EVerify for employees hired on or after January 1, 2008 how many employees hired prior to that date are undocumented?  What happens next?  What will this group, and their employers, do now?

Another reader, in Internet-speak shouting (with three exclamation points), “Shame on Arizona for employing illegals”, admitted to working “in a large hotel in Dallas” and offered this tantalizing tidbit:  “I can guarantee you that I have no illegals working in my hotel.”

What makes this assertion tough to accept at face value is that few hospitality industry professionals who realize the complexity of the immigration issue would ever say something like this, particularly if they work in Texas which, according to the Pew Hispanic Center has the second largest number of illegal immigrant residents in the US and employs three times the number of the undocumented found in Arizona.

Even more disturbing is to contemplate that these statements, admittedly made in the heat of debate and cloaked by Internet anonymity, are more than distortions of fact; they are someone’s true and uncensored beliefs.  The way the comments are worded makes me wonder:  could that someone be an HR director?

My naivete may be worse than I figured.

Copyright 2010 by Charles A. Conine and Hospitality HR Solutions

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When Great Minds Think Alike: The HR in Hospitality Conference Tackled the Tough Stuff

At the recently completed 4th annnual HR in Hospitality Conference there were plenty of opportunities for plain talk. The issues facing HR professionals in the hospitality industry have arguably never been more complex, the search for solutions more urgent.

It was therefore with no small amount of hope that some 400 industry professionals, operators, educators, legal professionals and the media traveled to one of the “ground zeros” of the travel industry’s woes, Las Vegas, searching for answers.

Answers, however, were in predictably short supply. Conference attendees were in lock step when discussing the seriousness of HR challenges confronting the hotel business in particular, where at least one operator confessed to having laid off over 5,000 of his company’s employees in the last 12-month period. These employees, whose safety nets were never big to begin with, will likely leave the hotel industry, the HR executive said.

Clearly, one of the benefits of the Vegas comments was that we heard just how bad things have been. The stories of the legions being herded to their employers’ guillotines, even though we knew layoffs were occuring in an industry where unemployment has touched 14%, were nonetheless shocking when repeated live, their details nauseating. These declarations, at once chilling and echoing like a nasty growl in a darkened tunnel, illustrated not only the depth of the Great Recession, but more importantly the tremendous reserve of ethics and attention to duty exhibited by the HR professionals whose job it was to preside over the dispersal of one-way tickets to the unemployment lines.

Another benefit of the conference: Collectively we learned that there is a place where HR’s creativity, its knack for adjusting strategic plans, its ability to save jobs through job-sharing and other movements about the chess board, does confront the immutable truths of cash flow, without which no for-profit business can survive. Thanks to the agenda set by the conference sponsors, Cornell University and LRP Publications’ HR Executive magazine, there was plenty of time to dissect when and where HR finally ran out of its creative gas — and what happened next.

Through repeated and in-depth breakout sessions attendees, longing for one more story or a glimmer of hope amid a generation’s worth of despair, learned at least one valuable lesson in Las Vegas: planning is key if there is a crisis brewing. Companies that wished and hoped for better times were crushed in 2008 and buried in 2009. Those that approached the recession as the monster they thought it could be are still with us albeit vanquished and in some cases, gasping for debt refinancing or an influx of conventions to prop up their balance sheets and income statements.

For me, the final benefit of this excellent conference was seeing that HR has been seasoned and matured by this crisis; it has learned what it doesn’t yet know, the skills it must acquire to prosper in the future. It has added a category of key strengths and abilities to HR’s required playbook called “operating in a financial crisis”. Lawyers have found that in crisis there is no lack of plaintiffs ready to challenge the decisions of their former employers. Educators learned that they must redouble efforts to prepare hospitality students for the “real world” by adjusting curricula to focus on what actually happens in the hospitality industry today versus studying what happened in 1960, and that they must help students realize early in their educational preparation that human resources skills are and must remain a core competency for the hospitality school graduate.

If next year’s HR in Hospitality Conference could do one thing better it would be to ensure that more segments of our industry are included. Speaking with one voice is a powerful force for action, and our industry’s many and farflung interests desperately need that one voice, not only to heal but to once again prosper.

Be honest and be well.

Copyright 2010 by Hospitality HR Solutions and Consilium Advisory Services. Meet us on the Web at http://www.hospitalityhrsolutions.com

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