Coping with housekeeping turnover requires creativity and diligence

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “every artist was first an amateur.” The hospitality industry has its fair share of brilliant minds and passionate employees, but it also grapples with an enormous level of employee turnover, and—in some cases—a dearth of available applicants preventing it from finding new rising stars. No area of hotel operations suffers more in this regard than housekeeping, where operators struggle to fill roles even in major markets.

While finding housekeeping employees has always been a challenge for hotels, Tiffany Cahill, corporate director of human resources for Driftwood Hospitality Management, said the problem has been exacerbated over the past five years, particularly in resort towns.

“In those locations, we are willing to relocate personnel to the property. If we have a hotel that is sold or we lose the management contract for it we will relocate key employees or promote from within to retain them,” Cahill said. “We have some people who have been with us for years. There are others who use housekeeping and similar positions as career stepping stones. They want to go from that position to the front desk. This is a great aspiration, but it also creates a vacancy in the departments they leave behind.”

In some ways it is the hiring process, and not guestroom beds, that needs to be flipped. Joe Heck, director of people support at Hersha Hospitality Management, said operators are often forced to think creatively about hiring practices in order to locate willing housekeeping employees. He recommends open interviews in five- to seven-minute increments to screen for employees in large numbers. This format also tends to drive up applicant numbers during the initial search.

“This is not the type of field where you look for employees on LinkedIn, or seek out people to move to your area,” Heck said. “We are focused on those with access to transportation, and many hotels offer referral bonuses to employees who help bring others to the property.”

Hotels often celebrate housekeeping employees during National Housekeeping Appreciation Week, but recognition should take place throughout the year.

Referral programs can be effective because they incentivize existing employees to seek out future co-workers on a hotel’s behalf, but this can only go so far toward helping a hotel find good talent. Luke Fryer, founder of hospitality technology startup Harri, said the need for quality housekeeping employees in the industry is not an itch that needs scratching, it’s a tumor.

His company provides a suite of tools to streamline the talent search and acquisition process by providing a stripped-down interface for uploading resumes and interacting with candidates. Fryer’s goal is to remove the resistances that deter candidates from applying for jobs, such as scheduling concerns and a frustrating, sometimes complicated application process. Also, Harri ensures all of this can be done on job seekers’ mobile phones.

“North of 80 percent of new job applicants are millennials, so if it can’t be done on a mobile phone it will be ignored,” Fryer said.

Cahill said that participating in career fairs and staying involved with the local community are also effective ways to secure new employees, but hiring for housekeeping is likely to always be a challenge.

“Housekeeping is a great place to start in hospitality, but trying to explain to a graduating student that wants to be a GM that they should consider starting as a housekeeper… it can be a tough sell,” she said.

Ergonomics is an ongoing concern for housekeeping employees.

Holding Onto the Best

National Housekeeping Appreciation Week takes place every September, and many hotels across the U.S. use that time to celebrate those often referred to as the “hardest-working people in the industry.” Often this is reflected through games, prizes and more, and is a great way for hotel operators to stay connected with housekeeping employees.

Employee engagement shouldn't be something that happens one week out of the year, though. Engagement must be reinforced daily, and requires a great deal of hard work on the behalf of operators to retain their best workers.

Steve Adams, CEO of mobile employee engagement app developer EmployeeChannel, said keeping employees happy requires the same main ingredient found in any healthy relationship: Communication. Adams said he sees daily efforts from hotels to stay engaged with hotel guests before, during and after their stay, but rarely do they afford the same attention to internal engagement.

“We believe you have to be where the employee is,” Adams said. “When you are delivering messages and communicating, you have to do it on the device they prefer, at the times they want to access the information. Old methods don’t work.”

Simple rewards such as gift cards and verbal recognition are important to maintain employee morale.

Adams is referring, of course, to mobile devices, which is why his company developed an app to keep employees up to date on scheduling and other concerns. An over-reliance on tools can be detrimental, though. For one, even if it is a rare occurrence, not every employee has a mobile phone. On top of that, mobile messaging contributes to the deluge of information that is always coming our way, which is why personal, face-to-face interaction is still the most effective way to engage with employees.

One of the easiest ways to retain employees is to pay well, and Cahill said it is wise to do wage surveys at least twice a year and find out what neighboring hotels are paying their workers. If you aren’t matching what’s on offer, employees will walk.

“Also, offer good benefits and recognition,” Cahill said. “We just had a number of hurricanes affect our hotels, so we gave all of our associates in housekeeping bonuses for their work during that period and recognized them as ‘Hurricane Heroes.’”

Heck said his company provides frequent recognition in small increments. HHM awards gift cards to housekeeping employees each time their name is mentioned in guest reviews, or for standout performance during high-stress periods. However, Heck said that while monetary rewards are appreciated, employee comfort is just as important, if not more so.

“More than other departments, housekeeping wants stability in day-to-day assignments,” Heck said. “One way to keep retention up is to provide as much consistency as possible. There will always be variables in hotels, but this department likes consistency.”