19th Annual Labor and Employment Law Roundtable- Session 2

The View from Human Resources

By: Mary Lorson
Masked HR person makes a list on a white board

The second session of the four-part 19th Annual Labor & Employment Law Roundtable, hosted by the Cornell Center for Innovative Hospitality Labor and Employment Relations (CIHLER), focused on the perspectives and practical responses of hospitality human resources (HR) professionals to the pandemic. Arguably the industry hardest-hit by COVID-19, HR directors in the hotel industry have had to conduct many serious and impactful conversations with employees as retrenchment (reducing spending in times of economic difficulty) has been inevitable. At the same time, the industry is looking beyond the crisis for innovations intended to bring guests and employees back to hotels and resorts.

The discussion was led by School of Hotel Administration (SHA) human resources Professor Bruce Tracey, along with CIHLER Director Dave Sherwyn ’86, JD ’89. Participants included HR professionals and other hospitality industry experts

HR’s thoughtful balance

During this conversation, these HR professionals first acknowledged the thoughtful balance that must be maintained between firm survival strategies and employee relations and retention. Although retrenchment was an inevitable course of action during the hardest pandemic months, some companies were better-positioned than others to withstand last year’s losses. In every case, HR professionals have been responsible for heightened and specialized forms of communication—from extra emails, one-on-one phone calls, texting, meetings, and more, to keep employees informed and feeling valued.

Asked how HR professionals might look at strategies for renewal of business post-pandemic, Alan Momeyer counseled that they consider the everyday experience of the workforce:

Workers are concerned about workplace safety. Think about how to assure workers that employers have assured a safer workplace.

John Levy uses data from Johns Hopkins University to evaluate risk factors by area, location, and personal health conditions, allowing employers to make educated decisions on equipment or hygiene routines for high-risk populations in the workforce. Also consulting with Hopkins, Abigail Charpentier worked to develop Four Seasons’ “Lead With Care” program of advanced hygiene and awareness for guests, residents, and employees. Brenda Tscharner described Proper Hospitality’s HR-developed 7-step protocols, which are shared with senior leaders and employees, including FAQs prepared by a legal team and updated regularly.

Communication and education

Communication and education go hand-in-hand. Crestline and Pivot are both expanding presently, building brand-new hotels that need to be staffed. Holly Lawson reported that Pivot has held socially-distant job fairs “to make sure that our outreach is sensitive to our candidates’ comfort levels.”  Crestline’s Deanne Johnson-Anderson described advanced employee communication efforts through FaceTime and Teams messaging, corporate team videos, and a popular weekly meeting for all staff and leadership. “We at corporate love it because we actually get to connect directly with the associates who are making it happen.” At Dinex, Kristen Diver said, the communication approach is old school: “We’re trying to be in the restaurants and show our support.” She’s getting to know the employees personally, staying in touch with the ones who aren’t back at work yet.

At Accor, Tracy Kalimeris reports that communication looks like expanded conversations: “Regional Vice Presidents and general managers (are invited) to corporate calls, so that the high-level discussion topics could filter down into the properties and issues and ideas from the property level rise up to the corporate team, where we hear great stories and some of the great things that the properties are doing across our region.” Additionally, Accor has set up testing centers in its properties to stay on top of an uptick in positive COVID cases in employee housing.

Preparing for the unpredictable: Retaining and recruiting

Kalimeris opened the topic of an uncertain future. “For the next 12 to 18 months…there’s a huge gap in knowledge…and how are we going to start to close those gaps? You’re really experimenting with the design of work.”  Approaches like eliminating middle layers and assigning cross-functional duties are likely to be part of the solution. Johnson-Anderson added that employee flexibility is already needed: “Everybody’s doing everything.”

Charpentier said that that after the pandemic, travel demand will be high, and that there won’t be a “one size fits all” approach to staffing. She expects higher expectations from customers… and from employees; all present expressed fear of workers defecting from the hospitality industry altogether.  “Our industry does a great job at producing service focused leaders who tend to have high empathy and emotional intelligence and are strong leaders, and that’s sought-after by many industries,” attested Kalimeris, expressing deep concern about talent availability going forward. Holly Lawson agreed, noting that the “transferable skill sets of managers and other leadership positions” can be used in other industries that allow people to work from home indefinitely. “We have definitely had to think outside of the box to make sure we’re not having a number of these positions just jump ship to a completely different industry.”

The hospitality industry is likely to adapt by offering its workers the same kind of benefits and flexibility white collar workers have always enjoyed. Accor and MGM have retained medical benefits for furloughed workers, and Charpentier suggests providing time off for “the mom who has to be home for school pick up and the son who has to be able to take aged parents to morning doctors’ appointments …(to) cobble that together to have the workforce that we need.”  MGM has established local partnerships to help employees’ children with after-school tutoring, as well as establishing resources for employee families who’ve suffered from loss of life, according to Jyoti Chopra of MGM Resorts.  She stressed the need to communicate honestly and innovatively. Managers and recruiters are also looking to other industries for the kinds of workers who have similar or adaptable skill sets. Chopra added, “We’ve spent a lot of time really thinking about sort of this notion of the community of current and former employees, so that hopefully when business returns and you have some semblance of normalcy, you have a community to bring back and talent that you can pull back in.”

Firms have carefully instituted other forms of support, as well– including Employee Assistant Programs and funds to which employees can apply for emergency money, as well as focused support for stressed HR directors who have had to hold many truly difficult conversations with employees. Holly Lawson has done yoga with her whole HR group. John Levy added that HR professionals sometimes need to be reminded to take care of themselves. “They’re always helping others.”

Alan Momeyer agreed to that, and added his respect and encouragement. “Your businesses could not be back in operation without you all; HR is now at the center of business operations…the business is recognizing that it can’t function effectively without you at the center. It’s really all about HR right now.”

Thank you to the following participants: