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Updated: Dec 7, 2020


Lobby Lounge, Grand Hyatt New York

After writing about luxury as at the foundation of every excellent customer service experience, it was only logical to talk about the next most defining element of service, not only in hospitality but in any industry and at all levels: your employees.

It seems very much of a given to state things such as “employees are the most important resource of a company”; and how many times have we heard our CEOs or General Managers advocate “if the employees are happy, the guests will be happy and will bring more business”??

I feel like many people are thinking this might not be a stimulating and relatable topic, because as senior management we should know better already. But then why is it not that acknowledged in certain environments or by certain people yet, to the point that I feel we should talk about it?

I think it has to do with two things: company culture and personal experience.

And I would like to leave the culture topic for another post.

When we look at the experience factor, as for everything that you learn on the job or in life, it takes time to develop it and there is nothing wrong with not being there yet. If you are a junior manager or a new supervisor and just getting your feet wet with managing a team, you might find yourself in the group of people that do not see why the employees play such an important role. But you just do not see it yet.

To be completely honest, I was not always good at putting efforts into the employees myself. Like most of us I learned on the job.

When I stepped into my first couple of management roles, I was junior, and as such very task and result oriented. My main focus was to get the job done, done well, and on time. I liked working with a team but I preferred working on my own, so that I could get the work done my way, with my timing, and I would not have to wait for anyone else. The most important result for me was the result itself.

It sounds like a paradox, but the moment I realized the importance of employee relationships was within a union environment. Why a paradox? Because if you have worked in a union environment before, you know that it unfortunately can drive some employees to worry about themselves more than their team, or the guests, or the success of the operations. Which in my experience ultimately leads to the exact opposite of what we consider good customer service. An example of this happened during my first job in New York, my colleagues and friends have heard this story too many times, so forgive me if I tell it again, but it really makes my point.

One day like any other I was in the hotel lobby walking around and doing what we used to call “massaging the line”, meaning I would talk to guests who were waiting for their turn to check-in, in order to make the wait less annoying. I saw then an old woman - perhaps in her 70s or 80s - walking in alone with two big and apparently heavy pieces of luggage, trying to get them on the escalator to come up to the lobby. She was clearly struggling and at that point I looked around and saw a group of doormen on one side and a couple of bellmen on the other side, all busy chatting with each other, and nobody aware or interested in what was happening in their surroundings. Nobody saw her, nobody helped her. After trying to get their attention with no success, I decided it was time to assist the lady myself. So I ran to her, grabbed her luggage and carried it while she followed me upstairs. I showed her where to go and told her we would take care of her bags. As I walked with both suitcases towards the bellmen, I saw them looking at what I was doing with a face expression that said “How dare you do that?”.

I did not think about that episode anymore for the rest of the day, until the next morning when I got called in Human Resources, and sat down by the HR director himself, who explained that I unfortunately was in trouble as the bellmen were not happy with what I did. Being at my first experience with the union and not knowing exactly how it worked, I was shocked to hear that, and I could not understand what I did wrong. What I did wrong is that I performed the job of a bellman, and therefore took away the opportunity for them to make a tip. That’s it! Personal gain versus customer service.

It’s easy then to look at the employees who are so protected in this climate of staff against management, and think “I won’t waste my time handling this drama and the people who are not here to serve the guest but for their own benefit only, I will focus on making the operations more successful with the other resources I have”. Haven’t we all thought that at some point or was it only me?

All of this is not to talk poorly about the union, as I actually respect what they are trying to achieve by ensuring employees are protected. And the truth is you don’t need a union environment to run into employees that think this way, you will find them in any workplace.

This is just to make you understand why the beginning of my management career started with no employee focus and instead attention to other resources. I honestly had a tough time in those first couple of years in New York, and ran into situations of this kind more than once.

However that changed shortly after.

Not all union environments are the same and it really depends on what you as a leader and as a company do to manage this sometimes very difficult element.

What I learnt while working in my third union property, was that there was quite an easy way to handle all this: you simply can’t do the job by yourself, you need your colleagues and you need your employees to successfully run an operation and to make the guests happy. Yes, it’s hard to give in when you feel like employees are against management, but there is no point in acting the same way and promoting that kind of atmosphere, because it’s obviously not productive, but mainly because you really need them.

When I realized how indispensable they were to me and my work, I tried a different approach. I thought “I need them to work with me (not necessarily for me), but they won’t help me, how do I turn this around?”. I started to spend a lot more time with them, learning about their strengths and weaknesses, about what they needed, what they expected from me, why they were so angry at management sometimes.

I tried to find some common ground.

I aimed to understand what I could do to help them, since I really need them to help me. They could see me making a strong effort to figure them out and to accept them while trying to be accepted myself; to be on their side when they were reasonable; to help them understand the other side when they were being unreasonable.

And the best thing I started doing was getting to know them as individuals, not only as workers, because employees are not numbers, they are people. They have needs, fears, wishes. They have families and friends that sometimes are really far away, they have kids to send to school, they have second jobs, they could be going through a hard time and be afraid to talk about it, they have dreams of their own, they have personal goals, they are happy, they are tired, they are proud.

Establishing a relationship where they felt important and valued as individuals and not numbers of an operation, turned things around.

We were finally on the same side.

As my career advanced over the years and I continued growing in junior and senior management roles, I could see a very obvious change in my priorities. I used to be very task and result oriented, but slowly my focus naturally shifted more on more on the employees and team management and engagement, until recently I realized I am not so focused on the result anymore.

Your people have to be always on top of your list, your team’s wellbeing and serenity needs to be your prerogative. If you take care of them and they feel valued, they will be so much more engaged and so much more productive. If you get on their side, they will do anything for you, even in a union environment. I know, it is a given for many of us, but not for everybody, so I hope this helps some of you and gives you the opportunity for a shift in focus.

I love talking about people, how to create a positive bond with them, how to keep them engaged, how to empower them, how to mentor them. There are so many things to say, and so I will keep talking about it in many of my upcoming posts. I consider this just a start.

If you found this post interesting, I am curious to know your stories. What do you do to bond with your team? How do you bring your people on your side? How do you create a successful give and take relationship? Share your experience with me and with us to help us learn new ways to enhance our people skills!

To my former colleagues at Riggs DC. Good luck to all!

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