World Panel
Viewpoint 2 March 2020

Sustainability Gives Hotels An Edge In The War For Talent. Or Does It?

Sustainability in Hospitality

— 12 experts shared their view

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This viewpoint was created by
Franziska Altenrath, Co-Founder at TUTAKA
Julia Massey
Vice President Global Sustainability at Kempinski Hotels S.A.

Generation Z that is joining the workforce now, has a much greater awareness of sustainability issues – be it environmental or ethical aspects of business conduct. They grew up in an age of high exposure to social media, where the reputation of a business can be irreversibly damaged by reaching millions in a matter of hours. I think what can make highly mobile young people being interested in staying longer are the sense of pride in being part of a given company, perspective of a merit-based career opportunities and fun atmosphere at work. Pride originates from the awareness of the positive uniqueness of a company. And sustainable management of a hotel creates a sense of belonging to an ethical business. see more

Merit-based career opportunities can also be shared through mentoring by persons that have advanced in their career in the company. In hospitality, like in no other industry, there are so many examples of people advancing from the entry-level positions to the top levels of management. The bridge between the new comers and top hotel management is beneficial for both employee and also for the management, who can learn more about the issues that new employees face. And, ultimately, a fun atmosphere at work is a factor not to be disregarded: we spend more than half of our waking hours at work. Also, continuous recognition for any small success and empathy from the side of close mentors and supervisors would boost the eagerness to do better and create a happier atmosphere among the young employees.  

Jonathon Day
Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director School of Hospitality and Tourism Management

There is already a strong awareness of the issues of sustainability on college campuses, and it is growing quickly. Hospitality students are engaged in conversations about how to ensure hospitality organizations operate in sustainable ways - and expect their employers to be doing the right thing. These students are the future leaders of the industry and there is no question in their minds whether businesses should be sustainable. This group embraces the messages from CEOs - including Arne Sorenson messaging at Davos this year - of stakeholder capitalism. see more

So, if the rhetoric of commitment to sustainability attracts this talent to these organizations, then one of the great challenges for all hospitality organizations is living up to the promises. Increasingly there is frustration in the perceived pace of change. Excuses or blame spreading (the owners won't pay for it) just don't cut it for employees that want to make positive change. There is a lot to be done but a couple of issues – including change management, and communication – come immediately to mind.

While CEOs and C-suite executives talk about commitment and highlight progress, the real challenge is ensuring that hotel management - GMs, HR, Operations Managers - are embracing sustainability goals. This is where the hard, culture-change needs to take place. If these managers aren't "walking the talk", new talent will quickly recognize the hypocrisy.

On the other hand, hospitality is doing well in many areas, and the industry needs to get better at telling our progress to key stakeholders - not only customers but our workforce as well. No PR fluff – but real, defendable progress. Our newest recruits are thirsty for the information. 

Suzann Heinemann
Founder and CEO of InfraCert GmbH

Sustainability makes hoteliers attractive employers and works against a shortage of skilled workers. With measures that are relatively easy to implement, such as Training, seminars and workshops, introduction and implementation of a health management system, healthy meals as well as enabling a balanced work-life balance will keep the workability and motivation of the employees. The team should be consistently involved in sustainable corporate goals. see more

According to a Deloitte study, 90% of Generation Y do not feel motivated by money, but by the meaningfulness of their work. Meaningful tasks are the main reason for employee satisfaction. It is therefore also important to convey a clear company value to the employees and to make it easier for them to identify with the hotel. To do this, companies today need a corporate culture, leadership with mindfulness and respect, as well as values ​​such as a spirit of development, personal responsibility, fairness, and security.

Mostly younger people work in the hotel industry, which is why it is essential to work with employees at eye level at any age. This generation responds particularly to sustainability, it wants to be understood, treated equally and respected. Hoteliers who involve their team in sustainability issues, communicate openly with employees, measure the satisfaction of their employees and are socially committed, definitely need not worry about fluctuation and a shortage of skilled workers.

Viktoria Schünemann
Co-Founder at POPCORN Consulting

If you want your team to believe in your sustainable engagement you must start to straighten up the general image of the hospitality industry. Yes, there might be low wages, long hours and a stressful work environment but you can work against that fear by giving your team members a purpose to work for. The hospitality industry lives from team spirit and passion but also authenticity. Executives and managers need to be pioneers of sustainability to which young talents can look up to and who give them a committed working atmosphere to identify with. see more

But being a pioneer does not mean you can lay back. Being sustainable is a change of mindset and the upcoming generation of young talents is critical and sophisticated. They have a new understanding of sustainability and feel a strong responsibility to change something. They care about the impact of their own actions, the well being of people and the environment in general. Young talents expect a commitment from the economy and its decision-makers - and therefore also from the company they work for.

In order to fulfill their expectations, you - as a responsible hospitality executive - need to create a company culture, where team members are involved in significant change management. They need to feel that their work is important and has a meaningful impact on your company and the environment. You need to enlighten the team about your new corporate culture and encourage them to take responsibility in their own work environment. In the long run, this will create identification between employers and their team members and reflects in long term sustainable relationships. 

Friederike Vinzenz
Expert for Sustainability Communication & Founder at RoomFor

Although various definitions emphasize the interdependence of the three sustainability dimensions ecology, social, and economy, public discourse focuses on ecological aspects and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, a change in society can be observed, with individuals showing a reduction in social and emotional intelligence. Due to the increased pressure to perform and high-stress levels, mental and psychological illnesses seem to be on the rise. Do the dimensions of sustainability correlate negatively? In the general understanding, ecological and economic perspectives have mostly been perceived as contrasts, so that scientists and actors from politics and business try to evaluate this supposed contrast. But how do the social and ecological dimensions relate to each other? see more

In the hotel industry, increasing attention to ecological measures can be observed. Equal opportunities, mental health, or similar social topics seem to receive less attention or lack the correspondingly high-quality evaluation. The Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report of 2017, for example, positively highlights the high proportion of women working in the industry, without mentioning their level of employment, salary segment or position within the company. Even if ecological efforts could make the industry more attractive again, as more young people consider ecological goals to be inevitable, social sustainability should also be increased in order to make jobs correspondingly attractive, implement a healthy corporate culture and retain intrinsically motivated employees.

Franziska Altenrath
Co-Founder at TUTAKA

When working with hospitality clients on sustainability we found one key success factor: a healthy organization. Without an healthy organization, sustainability cannot be embedded into the corporate culture. This might then keep efforts narrow and superficial. Which is why, before turning to energy, water, waste, purchasing, product design, communication and other arenas, the focus should lie on removing organizational weak spots such as long working hours and a stressful work environment from the process. see more

All of this might seem obvious, but the reality shows it is not. What will influence new talents decisions to onboard and make existing talent stay in an organization will be whether the organization is healthy or just pretends to be. Symptoms of the latter are not too difficult to detect. How is the communication flow after having sent the application documents? How does the employment ad look like? Does the organization have a defined purpose on their website? Do social media postings, press releases and internal communication feature their team and purpose? How is the organizations rating on dedicated employer assessment websites?

Obviously, each organization has to find its unique path to organizational health, depending on its structure, characteristics and processes. The task is a challenging one. What healthy organizations do often have in common is this: they put human potentials in the center of their business models and ensure a resilient communication flow. Healthy organization will both attract and maintain talent as well as be able to integrate sustainability into their corporate culture. 

Henri Kuokkanen
Associate Professor at Institut Paul Bocuse

The potential of CSR in attracting talent was uncovered over two decades ago, and findings support the notion that some types of CSR/ sustainability can achieve this goal. However, there are at least three scenarios: 1). CSR activities targeted at employees themselves, 2). activities employees can participate in, and 3). those activities a company engages in without employee involvement. The first type often blurs with employee incentives or regular job training. The common wisdom has been that the second type is the gold standard, as it lets employees experience responsibility themselves. However, the third type may be equally effective if company commitment to the field is genuine; with this type, working for a company can become an ethically meaningful work experience. see more

A major issue in this field is measuring the value of engaging employees. A true commitment to sustainability can be expensive, and while employee commitment, engagement, and job satisfaction are highly important, they are hard to match with costs. I believe we need a way to quantify the monetary value of employees finding their company CSR meaningful. This would allow financial investment in responsibility to be justified without having to rely on soft arguments that constant pressure for higher profit can easily undermine.  

Florian Kaefer
PhD, Founder & Editor, Sustainability Leaders Project

This is a great question and one closely linked to our recent Sustainability Leaders Project panel question - whether sustainable tourism leads to more and better jobs. The panel's conclusion was that there is a notable relationship between sustainable tourism and jobs, mostly in terms of staff retention (because of more caring, fairer workplaces and a stronger sense of commitment and shared values). Also because sustainability in practice means that a focus is on employing locals - both in management and operational roles.
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The key to attracting and retaining the right talent is that sustainability isn't just something the hotel's housekeeping or marketing team is working on, but that its principles are embedded in every aspect of its strategy, and that the owners and managers walk the talk. Otherwise, there's no credibility which can lead to frustration and disassociation.

Willy Legrand
Professor of Hospitality Management at the IUBH International University

In a recent newspaper article published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine in Germany (Viele Hotels, zu wenige Azubis), the author discusses the shortages of staff (in particular apprentices) in the hospitality industry. The gastronomy sector is particularly affected. Split shifts are now a thing of the past with many restaurants now only opening for lunch or dinner but not both meal periods. However, the journalist discusses the case of a restaurant in the city of Darmstadt in the south west of Germany where there is more demand for working positions than offered. This is in part due to the fair wages and good working conditions. see more

Additionally, the restaurant works with vegetables and fruit, cereals and nuts, some milk, eggs and cream from reputable local farmers and producers. The vegetarian positioning attracts a specific clientele, but also a generation of employees who identify with the restaurant's philosophy. I experienced a similar situation while recently staying at a hotel known for its engagement in sustainability, from carbon neutrality to upcycling design and local organic breakfast. And while these are two anecdotal examples, they answer (in part) the question: “With a new generation entering the labour market, can sustainability be a determining criterion to attract talent?” In fact, the millennial youth, and GenZ (both groups I regularly interact with) come with an understanding that the world cannot continue being used the way we use it. This matters to future restaurateurs and hoteliers as well as well as their customers (or any business for that matter) – so whether it is about future recruiting of staff or engaging with the future customers, choosing sustainability is to stay relevant to both groups.

Aurora Dawn Benton
Founder & CEO, Astrapto

Green teams!! I hear comments like "we tried that once" or "it's the last 15 minutes of our safety committee meeting" or "our executive committee is the green team." None of those is a solution to culture (or sustainability, quite frankly). The green team, or whatever you want to call it (referring to a diverse, representative team that meets at least monthly and pulls from every level and every department), is a fantastic way to tap into the hidden energy and passion of the staff. see more

I teach an online course on green teams in hospitality and it proves that even college students with little or no authority are able to achieve much! The class assignment requires them to start a green team where they work. I frequently hear about how much it improved bonding, teamwork, inclusion, and culture. And students finish the course with such a sense of accomplishment (they implement a wide range of sustainability ideas) and actual results! I hear many stories of how they got the attention of GMs and other important stakeholders. 

It's eye-opening because students who opt into the course are often the very ones referred to in studies that show the next generation is seeking purpose and sustainability, yet they are so disconnected from what it actually means at a practical level or how to proactively pursue it in their roles. They tend to be passive and the green team can connect them with specific opportunities and accountability. 

The green team is a tough proposition in an environment of high turnover and all the conditions mentioned in the panel question, but these students make it happen and within about 12 weeks they recruit a team, hold meetings, and implement at least one idea (and often several). They overcome language barriers, budget constraints, crazy schedules, and more. 

What can owners, GMs, and Directors do? Empower and support these teams. Make even just a little bit of room (in schedules, in a conference room, in resources). And don't make it an executive only thing. You will be amazed by what your staff can accomplish with just a little bit of encouragement! 

Benjamin Lephilibert
Founder & CEO, LightBlue Environmental Consulting

It's pretty obvious to me that a genuine culture of sustainability can play a major role in attracting and retaining talent. In the context of climate breakdown, the new workforce is way more interested in finding meaning in their job than the previous generation, and are more likely to turn to employers that take a clear sustainability stance. Sadly, very few global hospitality players really walk the sustainability talk. With an increasing level of awareness on the topic by young professionals, a lack of clear responsibilities, KPIs, training or guidance on the topic are signs of a lack of commitment, and this will probably translate in maintaining such a high staff turnover rate. see more

LightBlue helps to build a culture of sustainability within hotels by following a few but important steps:

  • Ensure support from GM/Executives
  • ALWAYS start with the “WHY” sustainability relates to everyone
  • Make it transversal (cross-departmental)
  • Focus on a few topics (e.g. food waste) at the time
  • Design and adopt specific KPIs
  • Work closely with Human Resource, including to implement a system of incentives/recognition
  • Share results to keep the momentum high
Christopher Warrensupplier view
Founder of My Green Butler

Responsible sustainable practices that involve all staff create a much more dynamic and positive work environment. The global challenges we face today are very much forefront in the minds of young staff seeking a career in a business that cares. I have found you attract more committed staff who willingly make more of an effort in the knowledge that your business has integrity. Just as a business must now accept that profit is not the only KPI but social and environmental factors are equally important, so is it true that good employees/colleagues are motivated by more than money. We recommend creating social compacts with staff to build that foundation for positive dynamics.