Leadership and Employee Engagement from an HR Perspective

By Dari DeSousa; PHR, Corporate Director of Human Resources, RAR Hospitality

One of my main roles in the last decade was to drive Employee Engagement at hotels in the market that I supported.  One annual activity was to conduct “opinion surveys” and examine the results in a YOY review to compare individual departments to their hotels’ average scores.  My focus was on the departments that had low overall engagement scores, they were in the “red zone”.  I’ve done this activity annually for the last decade:  red zone meetings with the employees, listen to their frustrations, work with department and hotel leadership to improve things, then measure the following year to see if there is improvement, rinse, and repeat.

Having spoken to thousands of employees over the last 10 years, I can sum up almost any complaint or frustration of any RED scoring department to one of the following areas:

  1. Leadership being ethical
  2. Leadership communicating clearly and effectively
  3. Leadership having a genuine connection to the team
  4. Enough supplies, tools, product, linen, etc. to do their job effectively
  5. Leadership being knowledgeable and consistent

All items are leadership specific. Effective, engaged leaders will better support the team resulting in them having a better work experience. Engaged teams are more productive, less likely to take advantage of the company, and will give a far better guest experience than non-engaged teams.  

Let’s explore each area.

Leadership being ethical.

Ethics isn’t a pick and choose activity.  You are ethical, or you are not.  You simply can’t sell, “we are ethical 90% of the time”.

When you initially ask yourself if you are ethical – the immediate answer is ‘of course’.  I challenge you to step back and look at all areas of the company – is everyone doing the right thing at all times?  Is there a culture of cutting corners, fluffing P&L numbers, changing employee punches by 1 minute to avoid OT or a missed meal break violation? This is very much a top down driven part of your culture.

If you are wondering if your action is ethical, ask yourself, “If there was a front-page news story about “what I’m doing”, am I proud or worried about indictment?  Or ask yourself, “Would my mother/grandparent/priest/spouse/children/mentor/etc. be proud of the actions that I am taking”?

Your actions cannot contradict your words.  Employees will believe what they see.  If they see you ask someone to punch out, then finish a task – they will know.  If they see you take home some cleaning supplies or toilet paper because you are out – they will know.  If they see you delete the email of a guest that had a horrible stay in order to prevent the system from sending them a guest satisfaction survey – they will know. They will know that cheating is ok for them too and their trust of you is eroded. 

Advantages to businesses that have a reputation of being an ethical company:

  • Competitive Edge – people prefer to work with those they can trust. 
  • Credibility – people believe you. 
  • Efficiency – trust makes decision making faster and more economical. 
  • Morale – people feel better about their jobs and themselves. 
  • Loyalty – repeat customers. 
  • Personal Satisfaction – self-respect and pride

Leadership communicating clearly and effectively.

Hourly teams are frustrated when we don’t….

  • Ask their opinions about process changes that affect their daily work.
  • Give them individualized performance reviews and instead give them a cookie cutter version that they can see is the same as their colleague’s review – all that was changed was their name.
  • Tell them throughout the year about performance adjustments they need to make and save it for their review
  • Set a positive tone, if you always present “doom and gloom” then the environment will be “doomy and gloomy”.
  • Give nonverbal positive communication.  Be aware of your body language, tone of voice and eye contact (or lack of).
  • Have a truly open door where we encourage our team to be candid. Create an atmosphere where your direct reports know you are available. Meet with them regularly and provide them updates. Offer recognition, support, feedback, praise, and encouragement.
  • Ask them their side of the story about an issue that results in discipline
  • Share with them positive guest comments, letters or improved GSS scores.
  • Ask their opinion about something that affects them.
  • Tell them in advance of major schedule changes or an unpleasant back-to-back shift
  • Have a daily “game plan” or stand-up meeting at the start of the shift to get everyone ready for the day.
  • Have regular department meetings
  • Tell them about groups in house.
  • Tell them about policy/menu/process changes.
  • Tell them in advance super low occupancy times, or super high occupancy times.
  • Tell them about major staffing changes, new leaders, new supervisors.
  • Have a communication board posting important department and hotel information that they need to know to do their jobs.

Communication can be the easiest thing to get right and it can be the easiest thing to get wrong.  If you miss on a communication you should have sent to the team or left them in the dark about an important change, then provide an apology.  There is no shame in a mea culpa, in fact, your team will respect you more if you own up when you make a mistake.

On a daily, weekly basis – ask yourself, “if I were my direct report, what would be important for me to know today”?  Also ask yourself, “what method of communication do I prefer”?  Perhaps a communication board that posts all relevant information and is updated weekly is best.  Perhaps hold a team meeting at the beginning of the shift and go over the game plan. Perhaps hold monthly or quarterly meetings.  Perhaps your team is all on email, and they can read their emails while on the clock at work – then utilize email.  I recommend a variety of methods, mixing it up can make it more interesting and I always recommend a daily staff briefing before the shift begins.   Take 10-minutes and set everyone up for the shift, give out some recognition and kudos and take questions. 

Leadership having a genuine connection to the team.

Genuine curiosity for your team is what employees want. They don’t want a stereotypical Used Car Salesperson approach – they want a real connection.  

  • Don’t operate at 50K feet.  Get out of your office and touch tables, check a guest in, walk the floors, take a loop around the work space.  Don’t wait for it to be busy, regularly do this, and ask, “do you need anything” or “how is it going today”?
  • Write personal note cards to thank people for small things – boost their positive energy – recognize the behaviors you’d like to see repeated.
  • Hold quarterly, informal Rap sessions that begin with you asking, “how are things in your world” or another question that gives your employees an opportunity to tell you about them.
  • At Daily Stand-up, pick a different person to tell the group what they are proud of/thankful for. Let them pick the next person.
  • Ask your team, “what is working” and “what is not working”, listen for the answer and react.
  • Genuine recognition, thank them for a busy shift or difficult day. The more specific the recognition, the more meaningful it will be.  

Enough supplies, tools, product, linen, etc. to do their job effectively.

Quite simply, get your team the tools they need to efficiently, effectively and safely do the job that we expect them to do. Order regularly, set PAR levels, have monthly inventory and have an employee reporting system for them to tell you when we are out of an item. 

At the end of the day, if you take your finger off of the pulse of your team, you will drive your teams to varying degrees of frustration.  Retaining quality employees can be a challenge and not having the tools they need results in higher turnover. This turnover not only affects morale, but your company’s bottom line will take a hit too. Whether higher turnover, disengagement or marching in the alley, you will have created a poor work experience for your staff and that isn’t enjoyable for anyone. 

Leadership being knowledgeable and consistent.

Consistency is key to …well everything.  If you have a consistent attitude/mood, if you have consistent rules/processes, if you consistently hold everyone accountable for their work product, then you will have a smoother running department or hotel. Being firm and being fair are not mutually exclusive.  I find some leaders manage so that their team “likes them”.  They talk to an employee multiple times for the same corrective action, they overlook frequent small attendance infraction and they often cross the boundaries of leader-direct report by going and hanging out with the employees, becoming Facebook friends and by personal conversations that reveal intimate details of their lives.  Be friendly, yes. Be friends, no.  It can be an even more difficult situation when an hourly employee is promoted to supervisor and they are supervising the same group they previously were pals with. Setting boundaries is important. Otherwise, the employees can take advantage of the leader’s “niceness” or others will perceive favoritism.  Hold yourself accountable and hold your team accountable to the standards in which you have trained them.

Beingknowledgeableabout the work that every team member completes is important. You don’t need to have worked in that job, you can gain the knowledge by spending time with them and understanding how they are working and what the struggles of their day to day is.

  • Know the rules, policies, laws
  • Admit when you don’t know something, then find out the answer and follow-up with the right answer
  • Ask your team questions about how they are doing a task, or why.
  • Know the basics:  checking-in, making a bed, using the POS system, answering the phone.
  • Cross train at another location to observe best practices that you can use back at your location.
  • Network with like positions outside of your own company.
  • Share your knowledge with your team.
  • Strengthen your bench by training those interested and those that are high potential for the next group of Leads, Supervisors and entry-level managers.
  • Utilize those interested in project work, tasks, fun work to engage them and maximize your time.  If the team is creating a Communication Board, then you can work on meaningful performance reviews.
  • Find a mentor or a coach.
  • Interview those in the next job you would like to see their career progression and evaluate what you need to learn to get there.
  • Then, create a personal development plan with actionable steps based on what you find.

Closing thoughts

Leaders should focus on departments with challenges, but it is arguably just as important to learn from those doing it well and have them share what makes them successful. Being 100% or in the “green zone” on an Employee Engagement opinion survey does not mean there are no issues. In fact, I have found that the issues raised by these highly engaged teams are genuinely big issues and produce some rich problem-solving dialog. Highly engaged employees are looking to learn new skills, sharpen existing ones and learn from their mistakes. This mindset enables them to find innovative solutions to the most challenging problems. When these employees are heard, we can leverage their highly flexible, adaptive mindset to implement improvements in an entire organization. 

Let the successful leaders model the behavior that you would like to see in all of your leaders.


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