Industry Update
Opinion Article22 January 2019

Empowerment In The Hospitality Industry – How To Make It Work

An interview with Philip Jones, GM

By Dr. Steffen Raub, Full Professor Human Resources/Organisational Behaviour at EHL

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Dr. Steffen Raub


Steffen Raub is a Professor of Management at Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne. He has written extensively on the topic of empowerment and addresses empowerment in his teaching and consulting activities.

Philip Jones

Philip Jones has been in hospitality for 25 years. He started his career in his native Ireland, where he worked for an independent boutique hotel for 5 years. Then worked for the next 12 years for Ritz Carlton in the USA before working for Jumeirah for 2 years in the Middle East. Most recently he has been with Mövenpick for 7 years, as a general manager in Vietnam, Singapore and Dubai. Philip Jones is currently General Manager of the Mövenpick Hotel Jumeirah Beach.

This interview was conducted at Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne.

Q: Philip, you describe yourself as "a great fan of empowerment". Why do you think empowerment is important for the hospitality industry? What attracts you to the idea?

Jones: Well, working for Ritz-Carlton for 12 years was obviously how I became introduced to the concept of empowerment. I saw the very positive effects it had, both from the guest's and from an organizational standpoint. It is not only important when something bad happens and needs fixing, but also looking at how processes can be improved. We always looked at the phrase "improvement begins with dissatisfaction of the way things are."

We really need to be pushing the boundaries and I am always one of these people who believe that corporate policies and rules are really important, and brand standards are really important, but they also need to be challenged. If you don't challenge them, you'll never get any better, you'll just do what you've always done, and you need some empowerment across all levels of the organization for people to feel comfortable to speak up and say: "No, I've got the responsibility to help and improve our business".

Q: So, for you, empowerment and brand standards are not either/or, it's not a contradiction. The two need to go hand in hand…

Jones: … they need go hand in hand. One helps drive the other.

Q: What do hospitality organizations have to do to implement empowerment successfully?

Jones: Empowerment is one of the hardest things to implement. It's so easy to say, but, you know, there are so many boundaries to it. So, I really start with communicating what the boundaries and framework of the empowerment are. What we want people to do. To have that shared vision or common goal that we all work toward and to make it clear that empowerment is a tool within the box to pull out as and when appropriate.

It then goes into training and I mean training that comes from me. So when we do our empowerment training to help look at specifically how we can "surprise and delight" and resolve guest problems, the colleagues need to hear it from me directly, Philip Jones, the General Manager. That way, there is no ambiguity. It is not "okay, well, yeah we're empowered, but are we really empowered?" And we do physical exercises. When we do those, we explain the limitations behind them, i.e. that every situation people are going to encounter is going to be unique and different.

And then, most importantly, you have to make sure that empowerment never results in any punitive action - so long as the actions have been done ethically and within the framework that has been provided. If we look back and someone does something where we would say "wow, that was maybe a little much, or this is maybe a little beyond what we thought", but it's not written in the framework, then that's our fault as leaders for not being more specific. And that gives us the opportunity to go back and re-work the framework. Again, procedures and policies, they're all living, breathing documents that constantly get updated you can never conceive every possibility and eventuality.

Q: For you personally, what does it mean to empower your direct reports? What do you do specifically?

Jones: Telling them, simply, "Make the decision. Do what you believe is right." When I talk to my Senior Executives, I say "look, my working style is very simple: as a general manager I will always keep 51 percent of the vote and you have 49. But I will let you exercise that 49 percent of the vote 99 percent of the time. Unless, I really feel you're making a great mistake. But I want you to go out and learn from your mistakes."

One of the best things that ever happened to me was on the very first job. My boss said "Look, make as many mistakes as you want, but make them only once and learn from them". And for me that was great. Having people feel comfortable to make mistakes is a good thing. I'm not afraid of mistakes, and even when you do things for guests and it results in a blunder … Hey, you know, we're not judged by the mistake, we're judged by how we react to it. As long as we do the right thing, we're okay. We'll be okay. We are in a people business. People understand. People are very fallible.

Q: Sometimes, critics of empowerment say "No, this is not for me. Empowerment is too risky, people can make exceedingly costly blunders." How do you react to that?

Jones: So, if you don't mind, I'm going to share a story. I was working at the Ritz Carlton Kansas City, this was back in 1999. We had a young valet parker and he was going through the orientation. And during orientation, of course, we explain that whoever receives a complaint or encounters an issue has responsibility to resolve it to the guest's satisfaction, and to that end they are empowered up to $2000 dollars per guest, per day. And this particularly young valet parker, he was on his first day on the job and a guest pulled in a huge Lincoln Navigator. And, of course, he does his job: he parks the car. I mean, we don't need to train people how to drive or anything like that. He knows exactly what he has to do, i.e. put it in a parking space, label it … The problem is, as he drove towards the parking space, there was a big sign that said "max headroom: 1.76m". And, yeah, that Lincoln Navigator was transformed into a convertible …

The valet parker was in tears. His first day on the job, he has destroyed a $70.000 car at that time. He's pretty sure he's getting fired… I was the Front Office Manager at the time. I saw him and I said "Look, you're not fired. In fairness, this is our fault. We should have told you that the big cars go over in another lot, and no one told you that, yet. So, this is a training issue. We're not going to penalize you for something that's happened and we can't avoid what is done at this stage."

I said "I'll go tell the guest". And the young valet parker, in his tears, he said: "No, no, no, I've got to tell the guest. You remember what you said at orientation yesterday that I'm supposed to resolve this". And I said: "Yeah, but that was kind of like for little stuff and that this is kind of like this is a big one… I don't think you want this. You know, the guest is probably going to be really mad and shout and scream at you". But he said "No, words mean something." So he went up and told the guest. The guest was not actually that mad. His first reaction was "was anyone hurt"?

Two weeks the Lincoln Navigator comes back to us perfectly fixed and the valet parker drives it out to the guest to return it. The guest looks at him and says: "Hey, this is great. And I just want to say thank you. You've made this such a seamless and easy experience. In a lot of organizations I would have be dealing with insurance companies and your boss, and your boss's boss and so and so forth. Just out of curiosity, as I do want to write a letter after this, so I get this right, what's your position? Are you the guest services manager? Valet parking manager?"

And the employee replies: "No, I'm the valet parker". To which the guest replied "How the hell did you do this? This is a big blunder, and I only dealt with you, I didn't deal with any of your bosses". And the valet parker goes "Well, I'm empowered! We all agreed, I damaged your car, and if I didn't address the issue you'd probably have taken us to court to resolve the issue."

Long story short, the guest writes a beautiful letter saying that from now on, he will only stay at that particular brand because he knows that people care and are empowered to fix issues. In addition, when his team travels on business, he will insist they only stay with that brand, as he knows they can focus on getting their work right, not spend time fixing issues they may face in a hotel.

So, yes, sometimes, you put a framework on it, but that framework has to be flexible to a situation. I've had situations where a Ferrari crashed into a Porsche. Do you think that was $2000? No!

Q: What about cultural barriers to empowerment? Does the concept apply everywhere?

People sometimes just don't feel comfortable. Culturally it's not something they're used to. They don't want to be seen, to show people up or to do the wrong thing or make mistakes. And, in the Middle East, where I work know, it's very different. So, a lot of owners are very skeptical about empowerment, particularly because, unfortunately, we don't have typically college educated ladies and gentlemen working. There can be a lower education level. That doesn't mean they're any less smart. They just haven't had the benefit and the good luck and opportunities that we've had. But it does create slightly more restrictive boundaries that people want to work within. So yes, when we do it, when we implement empowerment in the Middle East, it's not quite as extensive as the $2000 per day.

But, people have an opportunity. If the meal is not right, the waiter has an opportunity to take the meal away. No problem. If it's genuinely not correct. But we educate our ladies and gentlemen that the resolution should mirror the defect. So let's say someone is delayed on check-in because the previous guest didn't check out on time and they don't get the room until 5 o'clock. Well, give them a late check out the following day, if they want it, and maybe if they don't want that, we offer to buy them breakfast. Do something that acknowledges that the experience was not perfect.

Obviously you are not going to say "I'm going to remove the entire night", because you didn't lose 100% value. And a key thing for me when it comes to empowerment: it's so much more effective for a front line professional to resolve the issue. Because by the time he gets to me, his general manager, or to one of my other executives, it's going to cost the organization much more. Because the guests expects … by the time they get to me they will say: "oh, I've had to explain this to five people and now I'm REALLY fired up and now I REALLY expect something good from you…"

Q: How do you see the future of empowerment? Is it here to stay? Is it going to become more important or less important?

Jones: I think, it's going to become even more important. There is no question, our industry is going to continue to evolve very rapidly as technology improves. I think we're going to see a lot more artificial intelligence and automated activities take place, which is now going to drive the human element of our business into the personalized service, into the problem resolution, and into ensuring guests still have great experiences. And because at the end of the day, people want to walk away with that sort of "conversational currency" from the holiday, from the business trip, where they can, you know, where there is a sense of pride about where they stayed and what they experienced. And that will only be delivered by people. And by the right people. So, empowerment is here to stay, I think. It goes in conjunction with making sure you make the right selections of individuals who are going to have the talents and abilities to deliver it.

Dr. Steffen Raub

Dr. Steffen Raub is a professor of organizational behavior at Ecole hôteliere de Lausanne (EHL).

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