Attract, develop and retain hospitality staff by building both their hard and soft skills

Work-studyAttracting, developing and retaining talent is at the core of hospitality businesses’ competitive advantage, as recent articles have shown, (How to stop talent turnoverWinning the 21st century war for talentTalent management is all about retention and development10 top ways to retain employees), because it is the talented people you attract, develop and retain who will make your customers choose your brand, return to your hotel, and support your business. There are many contingent factors, however, that make our industry particularly sensitive to people-management issues whatever the country.

Hospitality – high turnover, low tenure

For instance, in contrast to other industries, our sector is considered as being predominantly characterized by precarious employment conditions and sometimes demeaning work relations. Low-wage earners worldwide predominantly work in hotels and restaurants, and the sector is also the economic activity with the highest proportion of low-wage earners (10 times higher than the energy industry, for example) (Eurostat, 2014).

Besides, management in hospitality businesses is sometimes perceived as overly authoritarian, echoing the chain of command represented by Escoffier’s traditional “brigade de cuisine”. Although the hierarchical nature of the kitchen environment and the standard operating procedures of hotels may reinforce the occupational culture and improve the consistency of service excellence, this kind of management style could be accused of failing to empower employees or sufficiently challenge them.

Then, due to the ease by which customer service skills can be transferred from one sector to another, high-performing hospitality employees can easily find jobs elsewhere. What is termed as ease-of-movement is therefore quite specific to our industry. High rates of voluntary and dysfunctional turnover become then all the more alarming given that employees with better skills and abilities will be the first to leave, whereas those who remain will stay because they cannot find other jobs elsewhere. The desirability for movement which may characterize the Millennials on the one hand, and globalization fostering “boundaryless” careers on the other, are two trends which may contribute to turnover increases. Of course, labour turnover rates vary greatly from country to country and sector to sector. Nevertheless, in North American, European and Asian countries, staff turnover in the hospitality and restaurant industry is definitely higher in comparison to other sectors. In fact, our sector has a turnover rate that is double that of other industries and only half the tenure rate.

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What can be done?

So, what is to be done to better attract, develop and retain talent, especially at managerial levels? Talented people are admittedly attracted and/or likely to stay with a company because of job satisfaction, learning and growth opportunities, and, ultimately the trust-based relationships they build within an organization. In order to foster the employee-employer fit, and therefore to avoid dysfunctional turnover of high performers, employers should enable their employees to develop tighter links with their place of work and their professional community.

For more than 50 years, researchers have been studying turnover, its antecedents and outcomes. For more than 50 years, researchers have been providing practitioners with explanations and solutions (e.g., Holtom, Mitchell, Lee and Eberly, 2008). Therefore, many reliable managerial recipes are available and ready to be applied. However, one of them in particular stands out as it may help to build a sustainable employee-employer fit, specifically at managerial levels. Maybe it could even help employers better attract, develop, retain talent… or encourage top ex-employees return to the fold?

Work-study programs are a win-win

Work-study programs like internship and apprenticeship offer a system through which an individual alternates theory and practice, school and workplace, or learning and producing. It derives from the principle of learning by doing and reflecting on experience. The employees/managers we need in our industry need to possess knowledge and experience, both the hard and the soft skills. What about attracting and retaining them…by developing them? Indeed, work-study programs are a win-win proposition for both employers and apprentices.

Remember the corporate system of the ancien régime in France? Based on the fusion between education and employment, apprenticeship was a system that forged newcomers into professionals. Not only did it equip them with the relevant tricks of the trade by enabling them to experiment in work situations, but it also enhanced their socialization process and to their organizational commitment through mentoring and coaching. Apprentices, therefore, firmly established themselves in a professional community. In other words, apprenticeship was at the heart of the sustainability of the “professions”, known as “métiers” in French. Throughout their training, apprentices learned technical skills, as well as sociological roles and occupational attitudes. The team spirit and work ethic they developed and shared with their tutors fostered specific ties that bound them together, and positively influenced retention, at least within the “profession”. More generally, socialization tactics and mentoring programs help newcomers to acquire necessary knowledge, skills and behaviors, and enable employers to strengthen the links employees have with the job and other organizational members, which positively impacts retention.

Work-study programs provide young people with an opportunity to gain real experience involving responsibility and personal risk-taking and to make sense of that experience when back in school. Above and beyond experiential learning, apprenticeships/internships help develop trade expertise and professional identity. Through such programs, future managers can build their hard and soft skills, but also develop their employee-employer fit, which enables them to develop close ties with a professional community. Indeed, apprenticeship or internship programs result in better talent development and retention for multiple individuals: apprentices and interns, as well as staff and managers involved in work-study programs show higher loyalty levels to their employer than usual employees.

This is what was concluded from a study conducted in several companies in France and in China (Hong Kong). Stronger organizational commitment and higher retention rates were measured, compared with standard employees, for both apprentices/interns and the employees mentoring and coaching them, particularly at managerial levels. Former high-performing interns/apprentices who left after having been properly socialized in a company are more likely to return to that company than other former employees – this is also true of their managers and colleagues who served as mentors.

When based on a well-organized work-education relationship, these programs build a tacit social contract that binds the learner, the tutor-teacher, the mentor-employee, and the organization all together. Both the learner and the mentor benefit from strong organizational support, and feel empowered by having greater responsibilities within the organization. In addition, the work-education relationship often means collaboration that drives innovation.

This was also demonstrated in the aforementioned comparative study conducted in France and Hong Kong. Both apprentices/interns and their tutor-teacher can challenge the firms’ practices when discussing the integration period, the company SWOT analysis, the discrepancies’ between theory and practice, and the competencies gained. Both the apprentices/interns and their mentor-employee or mentor-manager in the company can question and challenge the teachers’ theories in terms of distribution channels, employer branding, customer experience marketing and revenue management.

By collaborating together on work-study programs, tutors-teachers and mentors-employees-managers could elaborate on future hospitality management best practices. This would bridge research and practice. It goes without saying that it is beneficial to have interns/apprentices as employer brand ambassadors who also provide potential candidates with attractive and realistic job previews while disseminating and embodying their employee value proposition (EVP).

Amid a global war for talent, employers who want to attract, then develop, and finally retain their human capital should pay close attention to work-study programs. Indeed participating in such programs are an excellent way to build sustainable talent for your company.

About the author

Stéphanie POUGNETDr. Stéphanie Pougnet (PhD Grenoble University, France) is an Assistant Professor of Human Behavior & Performance and Talent Management Systems at the École hôtelière de Lausanne, HES-SO // University of Applied Sciences Western Switzerland. Stéphanie has worked in the insurance, energy and restaurant industries and co-created an online sportmania business. She has also been a consultant with hotel and restaurant companies and conducts research that aims to help employers better attract, select, develop and retain talent in order to sustainably create value through human capital management.

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