Tackling the Abuse Problem in Hospitality Head-On
Abuse of staff is a problem in hospitality. And too often, it gets swept under the rug. What will it take for a zero-tolerance policy to actually be enforced — consistently?
I recently made the argument that hospitality isn’t always about receiving service from staff but rather also reliant on the energy and spirit of the guests. The two combine to form an ecosystem of sorts that, when balanced, creates the best possible environment. When staff members are happy and guests are bringing their best manners and selves, then everything works.
But when this social contract isn’t upheld, there are problems. Sure, annoying minor infractions (read: watching YouTube videos sans headphones) happen, but in an increasingly acrimonious environment in the United States, there’s beginning to be heightened levels of abuse directed toward hospitality staff — and fellow guests. The vitriol of social media comment threads and tweets are jumping off the screen and into real life. And the problem is that abuse, racism, and “I’m a platinum!”-style entitlement seem to be played down without formal recourse. Some staff have to just deal with it, diffuse it, and go on. But the mental damage can and does take its toll.
A friend recently recounted to me an example: She was staying at The Lexington Hotel in New York City with her husband. The two were having a nightcap at the bar when a group of two women and two men came in demanding to be served after last call — which is a legal and non-flexible cutoff. One man started yelling about his platinum status with the property and threw money in the bartender’s face. After not being served, both men became aggressive in separate moments, again calling out their status. Without getting into the ticktock of the entire situation, threats were given to staff including abusive callouts to their perceived nationality, and then unacceptable slurs were spouted at my friend when she tried to diffuse the situation. The entire situation nearly descended into physical violence when the racial and socioeconomic slurs kept coming. Mr. Platinum stormed off to the manager, who then sent him back to his room.
After the situation was diffused, my friend, who has studied and worked in hospitality, wanted to know how this would be handled. The manager on duty shared there are no real concrete actions, saying that on rare occasions they blacklist a guest, but more often than not, nothing ever really goes beyond diffusing the matter, save for the rare case of filing a police report. My friend then asked what could be done on the corporate level. The best advice given was “tweet at them.” Certainly not a sufficient corporate policy.
OVERSTEPPING THE BOUNDARIES OF HOSPITALITY
In short, there’s a hidden problem in hospitality: Abuse of staff is shrugged off and forgotten about. And in the case of hate, racism, or violence, it needs to be forcefully cracked down on with measurable and tangible consequences. Not just swept away as a new day comes and new guests check in. The fluid nature of hospitality doesn’t mean that this behavior doesn’t have lasting mental effects on either staff or guests who are caught in the crossfire, as in the case of my friend.
Brands, from the corporate level on down, need to stand up for their staff, not to mention their guests, when it comes to a hostile work environment as outlined by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. It’s all too easy to teach employees to diffuse a confrontational situation, but in circumstances where there is absolutely no ambiguity that workplace harassment is in play, there needs to be a zero-tolerance policy for racism and abuse, no matter the status of a guest.
EDUCATION, COMMUNICATION AND ENFORCEMENT ARE KEY PILLARS
To address this issue, Victoria Stewart, a journalist, founded Hospitality Speaks, a platform that serves to add transparency to abuse in the hospitality industry and deny acts from being buried and ignored. Part of the problem, Stewart said, is the challenge of codifying guidelines for what happens in these situations but also making sure they are followed. “The best thing an employer can do is to talk to their teams, listen to their ideas and experiences, encourage managers to do the same, and brief people on an ongoing basis,” said Stewart. “Don’t just get new starters to read a handbook and sign it. Raise the subject, make sure it’s clear verbally, and regularly ensure staff has the option to speak about any issues either anonymously or with someone, if they need to.”
What is the penalty for these offenders? Sure, they may be a revenue generator for the property or chain, but what cost is a lawsuit, a physical altercation, or the dignity of other patrons, as in the case of my friend and her husband? How does that price into the mix? What if his coveted platinum status that he was so quick to bandy about could be taken away — wouldn’t that hit this type of character where it hurts?
Karen Kent, president of Unite Here, Local 1, a union that represents more than 15,000 hospitality workers in Chicago and northwest Indiana, told me that a lot of abuse indeed stems from a power imbalance. “There is an inherent power imbalance between a hotel guest who can pay hundreds of dollars for a room and the hotel worker who cleans that room or serves that guest their meal,” said Kent. “As a former waitress, I know how scary it can be to speak out about abuse on the job.” Unite Here has focused on a glaring problem in the industry, sexual abuse, and has helped women in the hospitality industry break the silence about sexual harassment and assault by guests.
As I’ve written about in this column countless times, frontline staff in hotels have a tough job. They have to be diplomats on the fly and deal with a lot of nitty-gritty day-to-day concerns. There are irate, tired, guests that don’t like something that happened. That’s table stakes. But when things tilt into the realm of the abuse, hospitality brands need a zero-tolerance policy that cracks down on guests and forces accountability. Because it’s nearly guaranteed the same thing will just happen again in the next city this platinum member checks into. Once toxic guests show you who they really are, believe them. And act accordingly.