Unprecedented Times: Hotel HR Directors Tell All
Updated: Feb 25
While dealing with the pandemic has been extremely challenging for the hospitality industry (okay, for ALL industries), one could argue that Human Resources has been the hardest-hit department. From soaring job vacancies to health and safety demands to ever-changing laws and protocols, it’s little wonder burn-out among Hotel HR directors is at an all-time high. So who is caring for the people who are meant to be caring for everyone else? And how are they dealing with the unique challenges they face?
hertelier reached out to corporate executives and HRDs from a variety of hotel companies for some honest conversations about the lessons they’ve learned, and their tips for how the industry should move ahead.
I have been in Hospitality HR through 9/11 and through the recession of 2009. I have seen some really difficult events impact our industry but nothing like this.
One thing every single professional we interviewed agreed upon: the pandemic has been a challenge like no other. The complete upheaval in daily roles – and the industry as a whole – was a common thread throughout our conversations.
“Overnight our role went from being strategic with a strong methodology focused on improving culture to crisis management,” said Alison,* HRD of a mid-sized hotel in California. “All of a sudden HR became primarily about health and safety issues. We had to become instant experts on ever-changing compliance around Covid-19.”
Stephanie, an HRD at a luxury hotel in New York, concurs. “The tools that good HR professionals and teams have developed over time – strong communication plans, dealing with conflict, and focusing on development – are great but they have not necessarily been the correct ones to respond to a pandemic,” she said. “We are having to fundamentally re-think the way we operate to address the new needs of our teams.”
The loss of predictability and structure was something that many of the women I interviewed mourned. “I am no longer able to focus on “normal” HR tasks like recognition of outstanding staff,” confessed Ellen, an HRD at a large hotel chain in Chicago. “All those things have had to take a back seat. When that happens, organizational culture slides. Rebuilding is going to have to happen, but the question is when?”
“Most HR folks no longer have structured days,” said Celeste, HRD at a boutique hotel in San Francisco. “I may think that I have an open day to catch up and then I suddenly have 5 employees out with Covid-19. It’s a constant juggling act. One of the biggest challenges is how do we connect with people while distanced from them and still have it be impactful and bring value?”
The juggling act has required that HRDs become even more nimble and innovative than before.
Mental Health Challenges––and Silver Linings
Jillian, an HRD at a luxury hotel in Boston, said that the mental health challenges facing HRDs are very real. Having to lay off employees, retain the ones you do keep, and deal with a completely new set of constantly-changing priorities – all have taken their toll. “It’s been personally humbling to be an HR director for 20 years during a pandemic, “ she said. “However, there has been a bright side: I’ve had to quickly become knowledgeable in areas I never thought about before, and I have learned new skills, although of course I never wanted to learn them in this manner.
I’ve had to quickly become knowledgeable in areas I never thought about before, and I have learned new skills, although of course I never wanted to learn them in this manner.
Tracy, an HRD at a five-star large hotel in Miami, said that the pandemic forced her to learn tough but valuable lessons. “We had to sever 50% of our management team. However, this magnified the performance (or lack thereof) of the current team. We quickly realized that while layers of managers were good (back in the good old days), it allowed for performance gaps and a lack of cross-functional skills. This gave us an opportunity to set different expectations moving forward.”
Other silver linings include learning strategies to protect one’s mental health. Jillian, for example, in addition to not checking her emails at night or on the weekend, as she used to, has learned to ask for help. “I am super transparent. I say “I don’t know” a lot, and then work to find the answers. It’s been a good exercise in trusting my team. What I’ve learned is that the job gets done. But I no longer get tied up in perfection. I am better at adjusting and enhancing as we go along. We are all just trying to do our best.”
Other HRDs have noted that their teams have gotten closer since the pandemic. Says Dari, a former HRD for a group of hotels and now a consultant, “During the pandemic my team was my community. We were all in it together. It helps that I had a boss who listened. He saw me cry from exhaustion and frustration much to my embarrassment.”
Stephanie also cites supportive colleagues as the people who keep her on track amidst the daily struggle with staffing issues and never-ending compliance reporting. Similar to Dari, she reports a comforting feeling of her team being “in this together.” “I’m lucky to have amazing colleagues in HR that validate that I’m not the only one going nuts!” she laughs.
Top Concerns and Looking at the Year Ahead
That said, the worries about what’s ahead are very real for HRD’s. Some of the biggest concerns they share as they look down the barrel of 2022 are burnout, mental health, work/life balance, and retention.
“Burnout is also very real in our role and in our industry,” says Alison. “I’ve experienced it multiple times and it takes longer to dig out of. Also, now that people have had a taste of the elusive work-life balance, there is going to be less of a desire to give that up. Traditional work expectations from upper leadership and even leadership at the hotel level need to adjust and quickly. I am amazed at how it has not.”
Tracy worries that non-performing managers are being allowed to work status quo because of a ‘it’s better than nothing’ attitude. “Hotels already with solid teams will survive,” she says. “Hotels with sub-par performers will be treading water, and will probably get by. And GMs that focus only on the bottom line, and not the total quality of life for managers increase the risk of losing valuable players in the long run.”
The ongoing uncertainty has been one of the hardest things to deal with. Says Alison, referring to 9/11, “When those devastating events happened, we could see the future getting brighter relatively quickly. The pandemic and the impact it has on the industry has been a very different type of roller coaster as there is no end in sight.
For Dari, having to lay off employees and worry about the very survival of the company, resulted in a dramatic decision. “In July 2020, I was so tired of being tired, I became part of the “Great Resignation.” I started my own consulting business De Sousa Professional Group. I spent several months finding clients outside of hospitality, in other industries that weren’t struggling. In 2021, I reconnected – as a consultant – with several hospitality companies and they brought me in for various tasks, most of them employee-focused.”
So what needs to be done to ameliorate these issues? The repeated refrain among HRDs was the need for hotel management to adapt to the times. “I am amazed at how people do not understand how much our industry has changed and the impact Covid-19 has had on the role of HR,” says Ellen.
There is still such a traditional mindset,” she continues. “I remember saying to my husband in early 2020, “if a person can work from home because it’s a health and safety reason, it’s no longer going to be acceptable to tell employees “it was okay to work from home then because we HAD to, but now your job has to be onsite.” It’s a people industry, I get it, but our industry needs to take the same guest-focused approach to their teams. “
It’s a people industry, I get it, but our industry needs to take the same guest-focused approach to their teams.
Tracy echoes this thought. “In 2020 when millions of hospitality people were being furloughed, as difficult as that was for them, they also suddenly were home every night for dinner with their families. They saw the advantages of that and as a result, many people reinvented themselves and found good jobs that did not require the long hours that are normal for us. As we have reopened, I have lost candidates who don’t want to work on a Saturday night if there is a wedding here. The hospitality industry has to figure out non-traditional ways for their employees to work.”
The Path Forward: Transparency, Communication, Efficiency
Everyone we spoke to said that there was obviously no going back to pre-pandemic business so figuring out the path forward was critical. While there are still many uncertainties, several key takeaways surfaced from our conversations:
Communication and Transparency. “Our team was furloughed for a long time,” said Stephanie. “We stayed in touch and always kept folks in the loop. Many of them returned as jobs opened up. We have also been very transparent about the challenges, and why things may not be exactly like they remember. We are flexible and empathetic.” Clear communication has long been a priority for Barbara Vale Quigley, HRD at Alisal Ranch in California, who for the last two decades has lived by rules from The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom a self-help book by bestselling author Don Miguel Ruiz with Janet Mills, which she has shared with her teams over the years. “My General Manager, Kathleen Cochran, and I create book clubs within departments, setting up reading time to discuss the principles, which has enhanced communications within our culture.”
Efficiency. Celeste says her team implemented HR by appointment only. “This way we can get caught up with all the compliance items and corporate-driven directives. Eliminating “drop-ins” even from managers helps both us and them to manage our time properly.”
Diversify Supply Sources. “Re-evaluate how you operate and look towards efficiency. We are diversifying our supply sources, and slowing stocking up each month to be prepared,” said Tracy.
New Hiring Priorities. Teach hiring managers to look for KSA (Knowledge, Skills, Abilities) that are related to the job, but don’t necessarily insist on any practical experience in the job,” said Alison. “Consider 'Housekeeping Bootcamp' and take people that have never before cleaned a room. Encourage double or triple the ramp-up time for all positions as new employees will be less experienced.”
Flexibility. “Become open to someone that only wants to work 10 hours a week – everyone doesn’t need to be full-time,” says Tracy. Flexibility applies to leaders, too. “The more flexible leaders became, the better chances they have at hiring. There are so many opportunities out there, you have to have the best pay rates, the best benefits, and move quickly," she added. According to a recent article in HotelNewsResource.com, be open to exploring non-traditional community-based organizations as potential hiring pools (Vets, Disability groups, AARP groups).
Empathy. Increasingly, people skills will make a difference with retention. Make personal connections with team members. Ask how they are doing. Take an extra minute to chat and find out how their kids are doing in school.
Prioritize Mental Health. Look at your benefit plans and ensure you are taking advantage of EAPs and offering resources for employees to maintain strong mental health.
Focus on People, Not Rules. “Small, nit-picky policies feel archaic….human-centered HR is more important,” said Anna. “I think kids/cats/dogs/doorbells during zoom interviews are actually no big deal. There are more important traits to focus on. “Greatness requires risk,” this is one of the core values of Davidson Hospitality Group, says Linda Schumann, Senior Vice President, People & Culture, “Sometimes it’s work making exceptions to rules or policies to take care of our people and give them second chances. Sometimes those exceptions, or risks, really do pay off and we build loyalty and commitment that might not have been there otherwise.”
Staff for Sustainability. Jillian suggests prioritizing staffing levels in HR. “Regardless of brand, and regardless of the fact that HR is not a revenue-generating center, it should be staffed for sustainability and not with a scarcity mindset.”
Four additional trends to look out for are:
Upskilling valuable workers and building transferable skills from other employees. At a time when staffing is one of the top challenges, any and everything should be considered to help employees reach the next rung.
Increased investment in dedicated Employee Experience (EX) programs. Currently, only 48% of large organizations have dedicated EX programs according to HVS, but we can expect to see a rapid increase in investment in this area. Forrester expects the number of companies that will have dedicated EX programs to be 65% this year. For companies looking to optimize EX, basic steps can be found here.
Seeking the service mentality. Several HRDs confessed that hospitality is still their career of choice, despite the challenges wrought by the pandemic. “I’ve left the industry a couple of times, only to find myself back,” said Cheryl, an Atlanta-based HRD. “I’ve realized hospitality is a ‘bug in your blood’. Ultimately, in my experience, it’s not about money, it’s not about what you love or what you think makes you happy…It is all about purpose at the end of the day.” Laura Presnol, Vice President, Talent & Culture at Davidson Hospitality Group agrees, “We really need to tug on the heartstrings of people that are passionate about serving others, show how an exciting career can result from all and any jobs in our world.”
Technology is more important than ever! “From the adaption of the remote workforce, how to find and communicate potential candidates, and being relevant with new team member onboarding. In other words, recruit them and train them through the technology and the way they use technology at home or in their personal life,” says Laura Presnol from Davidson Hospitality Group.
*Please note names have been changed for anonymity unless identified