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Hotel Grooming Standards: When the Breakfast Hostess Shows Up in Hooker Boots

Walking into a hotel in Seattle last month, I did a double-take when I saw an employee behind the front desk with a black eye. I assumed he just looked tired, maybe he worked a double shift. Hotels can do that to you—beat you up. But on closer inspection there was no denying it: he had a big purple shiner. I had to wonder what possessed management to schedule him when he looked like he belonged on the door of a biker bar. Were they that short-staffed?

This black eye is symbolic of the current state of the hospitality industry: bruised and battered by labour shortages. New hotels are popping up across the continent and there are simply not enough qualified people to staff them. The crisis isn’t exclusive to the hotel industry. Everywhere I go, whether it’s a coffee shop or retail store, I encounter the poorly trained, the inexperienced, the linguistically challenged, and employees who just aren’t the right fit. But nowhere is the problem more glaring than in hotels, where employees should be as sparkling and polished as the silver spoons in the hotel restaurant.

The shrinking labour pool has forced hotels to do the unthinkable: compromise. I can see the desperation of the HR manager in the faces of the scruffy staff I encounter. “Well, she’s not the ideal fit with that eyebrow piercing and dog collar,” she tells herself, “and there’s that three-year gap in her resume she can’t explain, but I have no other candidates and if I don’t fill this position soon the department is going to lynch me.” She reminds herself that sometimes risks pay off. “Think of Bob in Accounting. We had our misgivings, but just look how—oh right, Bob got fired for embezzling. Never mind.”

Hotels typically have rigid rules for personal presentation, but these standards appear to be slipping. Years ago an AAA Five-Diamond hotel I worked at had a section on grooming standards in the employee manual that rivaled the Holy Bible. Bad hair was a source of personal vexation for the general manager, who was nicknamed the Hair Police for her zero tolerance policy. A small scandal occurred when a front desk agent showed up wearing a black bra instead of the requisite white bra and it was visible through her opal blouse. Females had to wear dresses or skirts, and one of the housekeeping staff, a bit of a tomboy, was so uncomfortable in a skirt she opted to work graveyard shifts, where she could get away with wearing pants. Since then things have changed at this hotel—females can now wear pants—but so has its rating: it’s now a Four-Diamond hotel.

However oppressive, rules of presentation are essential to hotels because employees are a reflection of the brand. You don’t spend millions of dollars on interior décor only to have the breakfast hostess show up in a tube top and hooker boots. Consistency is important too. But some hotels take it too far, churning out a line of front desk staff so cloned and clinical you feel like you’re checking in at a Clinique counter.

Independent hotels and especially contemporary hotels have more latitude to allow employees to exhibit individual style and personality. This can be refreshing, but it’s also risky. Too much style and not enough personality and you get the model-types who look great but have all the warmth and depth of a mannequin. Too much personality and not enough style and you get chatty, overly familiar front desk agents wearing polyester scarves. I love to see individual style and personality shine through, but I don’t want to be served breakfast by Marilyn Manson and I don’t want to hear about the relationship problems of the woman turning down my bed. Call me a curmudgeon.

Problem is, as soon as a hotel relaxes the rules someone ruins it for everyone by showing up with a frosted perm or a safety pin in his nose. When an employee showed up at Opus with a seventies-style moustache we very quickly implemented a no facial-hair policy. One Halloween we thought it would be fun to allow staff to wear costumes—until a bellman reported for duty in full drag. An emergency executive meeting was called and, after much soul-searching, we decided that as much as we admired his chutzpah, we had to think of how our guests might react to a guy in a skirt with big fake boobs carrying their bags. This wasn’t Bangkok after all. So we sent him home to change, and didn’t encourage staff to dress up again.

Way back when while I was working at the Harbour Castle Westin we were undergoing lobby renovations. Management decided to make light of the disarray by having front desk staff dress up as construction workers. It seemed like a cute idea until I had to deal with an extremely irate guest while wearing a construction hat and orange vest.

Last year at the W Montreal I was at the front door desperately searching for a staff member to assist me. All I could see were long-haired ruffians in faded jean-jackets. It wasn’t until one of them approached me that I saw the W stitched into his collar. W Hotels is to be commended for introducing style to hotel uniforms, but this might be taking things a bit too far.

If hotels allowed more individualism and personal expression they would attract a larger pool of candidates, which would help fill some long-empty vacancies. But that doesn’t mean compromising. Guests who are paying hundreds of dollars a night for a room have the right to expect staff to look polished and professional. If an employee doesn’t take pride and care with his appearance, how can he be relied on to take pride and care with guests?

And by “personal expression” I don’t mean it’s okay to show up with a black eye. If that happens, send the employee home or put him on switchboard until the bruising heals.

Izvor: danieledwardcraig.com, february 2008. | Autor: Daniel Edward Craig

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