Spokane Journal of Business

‘Ambassador’ training key to keeping star employees

Hospitality managers should convey culture

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The hospitality industry is notorious for having high employee turnover. Proper and thorough training of new employees is critical for employee success within any hotel and can play an important role in employee retention.

The initial training that hotel employees receive is often prescribed by the hotel’s brand or management company. To equip new employees, most hotels begin the onboarding process with formal training sessions, often including extensive online computer training.

Hotel chains require employees to understand brand standards that affect their specific job. The management company typically requires standard operating procedures training, including human resource management policies. An individual hotel also provides procedural, on-the-job direction for new employees typically. 

With brand standards, standard operating procedures, and procedural knowledge training dictated by various stakeholders, it is relatively easy to transfer this necessary knowledge to new employees. Developing a comprehensive training checklist can provide a helpful framework for trainers to ensure new employees understand all the brand standards and procedural topics needed to perform their new jobs effectively. But then comes the hard part: passing on the hotel’s culture.

Hotel organizational culture appears on several levels. On the first level, which is easiest to convey, are behaviors that are readily observable yet subject to interpretation. The next level entails the collective beliefs and values of the hotel brand. The most difficult level to express is shared assumptions. These shared assumptions are long-standing norms and values woven into the fabric of the hotel culture.

For example, new employees are provided the hotel rules for performance and procedures during their formal training. Employees convey information both by word of mouth and by their observable actions. They pass on useful information, such as who to talk to when you want something done quickly, or which employees you should avoid because they have a negative attitude.

Some hotels have found success in providing new employees with a staff mentor. By pairing a new employee with a seasoned one, the organization can communicate authentically its culture with the new hire.

Stand-out employees are excellent ambassadors for the hotel brand and can help communicate positive messages to new employees. New employees can observe many parts of the company culture, but they also need a positive nudge to understand fully the underlying, shared values of the hotel and how they come to life in day-to-day work.

Likewise, managers must have a solid understanding of the organizational culture in order to convey it to new employees. One way to prepare and develop managers is by conducting an organizational culture audit involving all hotel employees.

Another challenging aspect of informal training is setting expectations with employees. Hotel managers often provide vague direction with expectations, telling employees they “need to be professional” or “need to be friendly” without tying the positive behavior to specific performance metrics.

Managers often approach those expectations as universal truths, as if everyone shares the same meaning behind the ideas of being professional and friendly. However, problems arise when an employee falls short of the manager’s expectations.

When providing informal, ongoing employee training, managers need to be aware of this gap between expectations and performance. If a manager finds they are constantly reprimanding employees for lack of professionalism, or not properly engaging with customers, consider that the employees may not have the same definition of these concepts as their manager.

Management teams can work together to break down such concepts into measurable parts. For example, professionalism might start with maintaining a pressed uniform, not using slang or jargon, and arriving to work on time.

Measurable examples of friendliness include making eye contact with guests, greeting guests before they greet you, and using a guest’s name. It’s much easier to hold employees accountable for delivering against these measurable elements than relying on assumed mutual understanding of a vaguely defined concept.

It’s important to remember training doesn’t stop once employees reach the end of their 90-day probationary period. Ongoing training is necessary to facilitate employee development. Hotel general managers must have a good understanding of the development needs of their management staff, and department managers must have a good understanding of the development needs their direct-report employees.

Providing employees with developmental training that aligns with their career goals can help fill the hotel’s development pipeline. The value of assessing every individual in the organization with depth and accuracy will help create a blueprint for the employee pipeline, which may then be used to create a succession plan to fill leadership vacancies. The leadership pipeline also can be executed at the management-company level. Having a clear understanding of where the next cohort of leaders will come from can help ensure long-term, companywide success.

Hotels also can find success by cross-training employees. Cross-training can be especially valuable for select-service and focused-service hotels with minimal employees to cover all departments. These employees benefit from learning new skills, and the hotel benefits by having employees who can assist outside of their home department during busy times, such as the holiday season. Moreover, cross-training can provide a richer understanding of the “big picture” of operations within the hotel.

From developing a comprehensive training checklist for onboarding new employees, to communicating the company culture and setting performance expectations, there is no shortage of ways to improve the manager and employee experience when it comes to training and development. 


Jenni Sandstrom is a clinical assistant professor of hospitality leadership and lodging-related courses at Washington State University’s Carson College of Business. A 2015 graduate of the Carson College hospitality Ph.D. program, Sandstrom has 25 years of hotelier expertise and believes learning from hotel industry leaders bridges a gap between classroom learning and professional practice.

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