Mr. Van Slyke

Human Resources, Recruitment & Training

The Top 4 Principles in Retaining Hotel Employees

By Erik Van Slyke, Managing Director, Solleva

Most hotel executives have long understood the value of retaining top notch employees. Countless studies have linked high employee retention to vital results such as improved service quality and operational effectiveness, reduced overtime and hiring costs, as well as increased customer satisfaction and guest experience ratings. Strong retention is highly correlated with strong company performance.

To provide further evidence of this link, the hotels consistently appearing on the lists of most admired companies and best places to work report an average annual turnover rate of 9% compared to industry averages of 27-37%. This difference results in a significant and immediate benefit to the bottom line, especially considering that the American Hotel and Motel Association, Cornell's Hotel School and the Society of Human Resource Management report that the average turnover cost of a frontline hotel employee ranges from $3,500 to nearly $6,000.

But the drivers of retention are about much more than the glamour of appearing on a Top 100 list. Sure, having an admired brand, consistently solid financial performance and best practice HR programs do indeed help companies achieve desired retention results. The more critical impact on retention, however, is made in the trenches when managers at all levels embrace four key principles for retaining employees.

Know Thyself

The starting point for improved employee retention is based on the simple premise that the best way to increase retention is to hire the right people for the job. And that requires understanding the criteria for success on the job in the specific context of your organization. This goes beyond a basic understanding of the tasks, duties, and methods necessary to do the work. Those only provide the basics.

Knowing thyself requires the deeper understanding that comes from examining a broad range of factors that are ultimately more critical to success. These include honest assessments of company culture, managerial style and organization values-both the idealistic objectives listed on company posters and ad campaigns and the demonstrated behaviors of managers and employees. It also requires understanding the unique criteria found in engaged, top performers-such factors as competencies, strengths, behavioral style, values, attitudes and ambitions.

And to make sure the assessment remains objective and unbiased, organizations also should consider benchmarking jobs against the success criteria for similar roles in other industries.

The combination of these factors helps you construct an overall job profile that broadens your understanding of the requirements for success. It also helps you assess and select candidates that are the best overall match for the position.

The Ritz-Carlton used this process to create one of the lowest turnover rates in the hotel industry. Since they often receive dozens of applicants for each job opening, they needed a way to rapidly move from a hiring assembly line to a process that improved their ability to be selective.

In addition to a broad analysis of the job and organization environment, they studied top performers in other organizations and developed an ideal "profile" for each position. According to Gerard van Grinsven, the former Vice President and Area General Manager for the Ritz-Carlton Dearborn in Michigan, "We looked at what made these employees give exceptional performance. Then we developed job descriptions and detailed qualifications for comparable jobs in our properties. Some might say we 'benchmarked' - that is, we used workers in other high caliber companies as our models."<br.

By understanding the complete requirements of the job-both the fundamental knowledge and skills as well as the behavioral factors that are a part of top performance-managers make improved selection decisions and take their first step to improved retention.


Sometimes the most obvious solution is the most effective one - and the least one considered. Listening is a key to improved employee retention because it creates an environment where employees feel valued and because it provides managers with insights into ways to continuously improve the workplace.

In the book The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave, author Leigh Branham and the Saratoga Institute examined exit surveys from thousands of employees leaving their companies. After taking account of the unpreventable reasons-advancement opportunity, better-paying job, career change, commuting time/distance, job elimination, retirement, return to school, self-employment, and spouse's relocation-they identified seven common themes that are simultaneously the best-known yet most hidden reasons for employees leaving their jobs:

  • the job or workplace does not live up to expectations
  • a mismatch exists between the job and the employee's strengths
  • they receive too little coaching and/or feedback
  • they see too few growth and advancement opportunities
  • they feel devalued and unrecognized
  • they experience stress from overwork and work-life imbalance, and
  • they feel a loss of trust and confidence in senior leaders

These reasons not only can be easily prevented, they also articulate the path to simple, practical solutions to help employees feel more engaged.

By seeking first to identify and understand the needs and interests of our employees, we create an environment that lets them voice their thoughts and opinions. And the more they share, the more information we have to create innovative solutions for motivating and engaging. But it is more than just listening to the words they say. To become an effective listener we must go beyond literal content and learn to hear the intent, the emotions, and the deeper meaning others are trying to communicate.

As Twitter CEO Evan Williams said in a recent Wall Street Journal interview, "When employees see that they are able to ask a question or speak out in a meeting, they begin to understand that maybe this is the place I can really voice my opinion."

And that's a sign that they have unpacked their bags and are committed to staying for the long haul.


In a recent article in Business Week, Gamal Aziz, president of MGM Grand Hotel & Casino said, "Employees are willing to give their all when they are well-treated, appreciated. And the ability to unlock that potential is a competitive distinction…Imagine taking 10,000 employees, and each and every one of them wanting to give more. That's really the difference between [us and] a company that has its employees just punching the clock and trying to get through the day."

Engagement does not just happen. And it can't be motivated by money or other forms of carrots and sticks. In fact, the research suggests that carrot and stick programs, such as pay for performance, don't work and can even result in a negative impact on performance. They are 20th Century business tools designed to incent mechanistic tasks, and this is the 21st Century where even our lowest level employees are expected to innovate, especially when it comes to customer service.

Engagement is intrinsically motivated and is about having pride in the organization and being willing to exert extra effort on behalf of the company. It's also about feeling responsible for the work product and outcomes, feeling inspired to do one's best and believing you can make a positive impact.

Managers drive engagement when they inspire enthusiasm and when they ask for input into decision-making in their departments. They also improve engagement when they offer opportunities to develop new knowledge and skills as well as find ways for employees to impact the quality of the work or service.

Now it should be evident why listening is so critical. Engagement opens the door and provides the opportunity for growth, variety, challenge, competence and achievement. Listening is the warm welcome that nurtures the trust, communication, interest, support and collaboration that keeps employees coming back for more.

Provide Autonomy

You know thyself and understand the results that need to be accomplished and how to identify talent that can accomplish them.

You listen to your employees not only to learn their needs and concerns, but also their ideas and goals. And you engage them by inspiring enthusiasm, offering opportunities for impact and drawing them into department decision-making.

Now it's time to get out of the way.

Employees are at their best when they are give autonomy. They want to know you trust them to do their work. They want you to trust that they understand what they need to get done and that you are okay letting them do it the way they want to do it.

Traditional notions of management, like the carrot and stick, are great if you want compliance. But if you want engagement, the key driver of intrinsically-driven high performance and increased retention, then self-direction works better.

A study of 241 hotel employees in South Korea examined how autonomy relates to performance outcomes. It found that autonomous employees are more satisfied with their jobs and they are more likely to perform well in the hotel environment where they can interact freely with customers. Management support could increase the level of pride, autonomy and job satisfaction, but it had no impact on job performance whatsoever.

Provide autonomy and you will not only create a bond that increases retention, you also will improve productivity and quality as well as accelerate change and innovation.

By applying these four principles, individual managers can make a profound impact on employee retention. They create a climate that leads to employees who are more likely to share the organization's values, who understand their role, who are more satisfied and engaged, and who perform at a higher level of quality in serving hotel guests. publications that include the Wall Street Journal, LA Times, HR Executive, Workforce and HR Magazine.

Erik Van Slyke is a change leader, executive coach, author, blogger and educator who advises some of the world’s leading organizations how to create and navigate change, improve organizational collaboration and develop human capital. As managing director of Solleva, he helps organizations plan for, implement and manage change by coaching change leaders and strengthening project team capability. His innovative approach to leading project-based change was named a Best Idea in HR by Human Resource Executive. With more than two decades in consulting and HR leadership roles, Mr. Van Slyke's clients include both domestic and global organizations across a broad range of industries. Prior to Solleva he led the Northeast Human Capital Management practice at Buck Consultants and held senior consulting roles with Deloitte and SHL. In addition, Mr. Van Slyke served as the executive vice president of human resources for Reuters Americas. Mr. Van Slyke can be contacted at 646-623-4823 or Please visit for more information. Extended Bio... retains the copyright to the articles published in the Hotel Business Review. Articles cannot be republished without prior written consent by

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