There are five enduring core issues (and potential pain points) in human resources: Compliance, compensation and benefits, organizational dynamics, selection and retention and learning and development. Of course, each can be impacted by real or perceived changes in market conditions and advances in HR theory and practice. Thus, we have the rise of specific buzzwords and increased attention to particular hot-button topics.

There’s been a steady stream of such “issues du jour” over the years, such as leadership and brand authenticity, e-learning platforms, Obamacare (Affordable Care Act), HRIS systems, emotional intelligence, social media, women in leadership and millennials in the workforce. This year’s focus was a confluence of “Innovation and Technology.” Maybe “confabulation” is more fitting than “confluence,” since the two topics unfortunately seemed to be promoted knowingly or unwittingly as synonyms. That can be counterproductive thinking, as we discuss later.

AETHOS always has a strong presence at the HR in Hospitality Conference, and we give props to the Cornell University team that acts as the planning committee and session facilitators. J. Bruce Tracey was especially effective at fostering debate and discussion with panelists who bridge academic models from the classroom with practices and lessons from the field—in essence, attendees see and learn from his ability to mesh qualitative and quantitative research in real time to produce practical and evidence-based “takeaways” for practitioners. For our part, we gleaned both overt and subtle lessons that fall in one of three buckets. Here’s our review.

HR’s Evolving Role

“HR is in the people business,” was a common mantra in various forms at the conference. Frankly, we don’t strictly agree. HR traditionally was in the “process” business of personnel, entailing the transactional tasks of hiring, payroll, insurance and compliance. Then came the “people” business where professional development and culture-building were highlighted with new employee on-boarding, engagement initiatives, and learning and development programs. Today, it seems that HR deserves a new job description that emphasizes the strategic aspects of value creation that HR brings to organizations.

In this sense, HR is no longer seen as an administrative cost center, but as a strategic profit center that is a critical component of senior leadership. Therefore, the role that HR plays within the interactions among the senior leaders is the real business of HR. CEOs are actually “chief value creation officers;” COOs are akin to “chief application officers;” CFOs function as “chief resource officers;” and CHROs, or chief people/culture officers, and the like, are closer to “chief alignment officers” in today’s organizations.

AETHOS’ research on high-performance and service-driven organizations has shown that successful companies have strong, ongoing alignment among four domains that define a broad “performance matrix”—purpose and values; strategies and goals; structure, tactics and resources; and metrics and outcomes. Think of the performance matrix in terms of driving a car on a long road trip and understanding the rules of the road. First, an organization’s ultimate goals, or where it’s heading, must be defined (the “destination”). Second, the strategies must be formulated that are necessary to reach that destination (the “roadmap”). Third, the resources required to follow the roadmap must be determined and allocated (the “fuel”). And, fourth, the organization must constantly monitor both the fuel and course heading to ensure it remains headed on the correct path (the “dashboard” measuring outcomes).

HR leadership is concerned with connecting people practices to business practices, and frankly this means thinking beyond people. It’s now about organizational culture and the meshing of external and internal brand promises and experience. HR must be able to help refine strategies and goals, establish and implement systems of accountability and gather and interpret outcome metrics with the mindset of a business owner. Alignment among the domains of the performance matrix is the new reality of HR.

Defining Innovation in HR and the Broader Organization

“HR and the hospitality industry in general need to be more innovative,” was perhaps the loudest mantra at the conference. It’s difficult to disagree with the premise that businesses require evolution to stay competitive. On the other hand, two issues are being confused—innovation versus technology. Oxford Dictionaries defines “innovation” simply as “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry.” Nowhere does that definition stipulate the adoption and use of “mechanical or electronic devices or platforms.” And yet, conference presenters routinely emphasized ways to “repurpose or reimagine” HR tasks in terms of gadgets and platforms that make connection, collaboration and learning more efficient and expedient for team members.

Scientific knowledge comes in many forms. Consider three innovations that changed the world—the social invention of language, the materials science creation of plastic and the discovery of penicillin. Each represents a landmark advancement that had nothing to do with mechanical devices. Likewise, it is tempting, but arguably counterproductive, to follow the current trend of thinking always as a “technologist” (device-oriented) versus thinking as a general “problem solver” (manual or automated approaches are both leveraged). Looking ahead is fine, but let’s first educate ourselves on the wealth of relevant scientific knowledge that already exists, which can be applied.

We encourage all HR pros and organizational leaders to routinely examine the core values, beliefs and theoretical orientations driving their business. Those operating principles could be outdated, or sadly, outright false. Case in point, we heard a few dangerous myths promoted during the conference. One was the “innovation equals technological applications” discussed above. Another was that “assessments are basically fuzzy science.” We sympathize with organizations that have had bad experiences with assessments, because most neither measure competencies most important to the hospitality industry (Lange & Houran, 2009) nor are validated properly and legally defensible (Lange & Houran, 2015). However, there are psychometrically sound assessments for screening and selection that have proven effective when used with behavioral interviewing and reference checking. Done well, assessments transcend fuzzy science.

Finally, we heard from a major HR practitioner that “attitudes drive a person’s behavior.” Actually, social science and marketers have known this is false since 1975! In particular, one of psychology’s most successful, well-validated models of decision-making in volitional actions is the Theory of Reasoned Action (THORA: Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975) and its later extension into the Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1991). This theory has been the subject of theoretical and empirical study of more than 30 years in diverse areas, and its major tenets, predictions and implications have survived unscathed.

According to THORA, a person’s behavior is determined mainly by an “intention” to perform the behavior, and this intention, in turn, is a function of an “attitude” toward the behavior and the “subjective norm.” Intention is the cognitive representation of a person's readiness to perform a given behavior, and it is the sole and immediate determinant of behavior. People’s intentions to perform a particular behavior are, in turn, determined by three factors: (a) people’s attitude toward this specific behavior, (b) their subjective norms concerning this behavior, and (c) their perceived behavioral control over performing this behavior. It seems complicated, but it’s actually quite simple and you don’t get more old-school than a behavioral model from the days of disco. So, how is it that a seasoned HR pro has come to believe and act on a mistaken premise, as well as not be familiar with an enduring and well-validated view of what really drives behavior?

No need to browse the internet for the latest and greatest “breakthroughs” in motivational psychology… here again is an example of existing, readily available technology (i.e., scientific knowledge) that works better than any other model and should be applied in today’s workplaces. The point is that we should be focused on mentoring team members, and especially leaders, on how to think, reason and problem solve in resourceful ways. This is different than providing and promoting technological resources as the solutions. Solutions come from applying gray matter, not gadgets.

For example, we met two providers at the conference that especially exemplified innovation in our view—one was technology-based and the other was not. First, there was a non-profit organization called CORE that provides financial support to children of food-and-beverage service employees navigating life-changing circumstances. This is a wonderful resource that can augment any company’s employee assistance program. Second, there was an intriguing start-up called Entrada, which is all about leveraging the latest advancements in mobile technology to help employees learn new languages on the job and in real time. It is an extremely clever concept and application, both in terms of enhancing employee development with learning new skills and enhancing guest relations by overcoming language barriers that frustrate team members and customers alike.

Anticipating the Talent of Tomorrow

“HR needs to anticipate the employee skills needed to sustain tomorrow’s bench-strength and the guest experience,” was an unspoken theme across many presentations and during casual conversations with attendees. One thing about which everyone seemed to agree was the need for team members who could adapt and thrive in an era of disruption—new technologies, expanding markets, consolidation of brands and businesses and changes in people’s values and lifestyles. How do we recognize and recruit talent that will drive innovation, and what will effective communication skills, leadership, team building and problem-solving look like five, 10 or 20 years from now?

Even futurists have difficulty getting granular on questions like these. But one general skill that seems crucial up and down the organization chart and across all job types is “resilience.” Indeed, it has always been beneficial in business; it’s not a new idea or the latest success factor. Some call it grit, adaptability, flexibility or nimbleness. Social scientists refer to it variously as “tolerance of ambiguity” or “left-brained” individuals. It all reflects the basic propensity to “go with the flow” and not become overwhelmed by onsets of change, disorganization, reinvention or even downright chaos. This is not purely an innate personality trait; resilience can be learned and honed. For instance, in our own coaching and performance management work at AETHOS, we emphasize seven tactics:

  • Stay neutral and suspend judgment. Delay as long as possible the formation of conclusions. Resist emotional or gut reactions.
  • Stay curious. Seek to understand the things that would otherwise induce a judgment. Avoid assumptions and use Socratic questioning to explore what’s happening around you. Ask “why” and say things like, “Tell me more about that.”
  • Stay connected to multiple information. Acquire concentric knowledge as it is related to personal life, workplace, product/service, customer, market/industry and global perspectives.
  • Enjoy messes. Put yourself in unfamiliar places and situations to reduce anxiety associated with ambiguities.
  • Advisors. Choose seven diverse, smart individuals to help you stay grounded, measured and aware by challenging your assumptions and rounding out your thinking.
  • Embrace the stranger and all forms of diversity.
  • Calibrate/change strategy and structure, not values.

At the End of the Day

This year’s conference was full of optimism and enthusiasm as to the state of HR and the hospitality industry in its entirety. It is evident that our industry and its HR leaders are thinking and acting strategically and positioning HR to be at the forefront of meaningful innovation, not merely innovation for its own sake.

We encourage anyone interested in HR trends, tactics and tools to attend the HR in Hospitality Conference; attendees will likely feel value for the knowledge and awareness gained, as well as the social and business networking with colleagues, academics and vendors.

The conference has grown tremendously over the years and has graduated to be a “must-attend event” for any professional looking to understand the myriad facets defining “current” and “futurist” perspectives on the “people and cultural” side of the hospitality business—and in this business, people are ultimately the product.

References & Further Reading
Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Org. Behav. Hum. Decis. Process, 50, 179–211.
Fishbein, M., & Ajzen, I. (1975). Belief, Attitude, Intention, and Behavior: An Introduction to Theory and Research. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Lange, R., & Houran, J. (2015). “Quality of measurement” – the implicit legal cornerstone of HR assessments. Employee Relations Law Journal, 40, 46-60.