Oxfam, Housekeepers and Tourism’s Dirty Little Secret

Making frontpage headlines all over Canada in mid-October was a scathing report from Oxfam Canada, an international development agency for advancing women’s right, detailing the personal and systematic abuse that housekeepers suffer throughout the course of their average workday. To read it in full, go here.

While some of the report’s findings may be viewed as not purely scientific in methodology or even cherrypicked, there is one irrefutable truth: being a housekeeper is a damn tough job and we aren’t giving these frontline staffers the respect they deserve.

It’s a nagging issue that can affect nearly every property and everywhere. Even as far back as this spring when I attended the Housekeeping Forum here in Toronto, one of the key issues presented by a panel of executive housekeepers at prestigious hotels across the city was that the job doesn’t attract from a willing labor pool.

Housekeeping is not regarded as a career nor even one for long-term employment with the prospect of vertical advancement, hence why we are seeing increasing rates of low morale, absenteeism and general neglect of one’s full responsibilities. Moreover, those currently in a room-cleaning role may not feel as though they are justly appreciated, leading to chronic fatigue which can exacerbate physical injuries or even mental conditions.

All the above reflects poorly on any property, both in terms of additional costs associated with the supervision of this department and, worse, negative reviews on third-party websites incurred from actual housekeeping errors. Add to that the mounting public disdain for hotels as exemplified by this latest Oxfam release and you have a recipe for disaster later on down the road, whether it’s in the form of customers looking elsewhere for their travel accommodations due to perceived ethical concerns or even unionization that could potentially double your total labor costs.

The key to mitigating any future issues that might affect this backbone of your operations is to be proactive about ensuring that your workplace is one that people want to go to day in day out. For this, here are some broad areas where changes can be taken.

1. Nurturing environment. We all aspire to create a workplace where equal opportunity reigns, but sometimes it is easy for senior managers to look over the nuances of what this truly involves. It starts by being more observant and taking note of all instances, however small, when your housekeepers are being neglected. While this can occur from guests, it is more important that you work to correct this first internally because if guests see that the rest of the team respects the housekeepers then they are much more likely to follow suit.

My first suggestion here is to be spell it out by making it completely transparent that this may be a problem at your property. Next, promote the diligent work of your housekeepers in other departments so that everyone understands and can empathize with their plight. Specifically, as it pertains to the women in your organization, you might even opt to conduct a basic sensitivity class so that everyone, including senior management, has a fundamental level of knowledge when it comes to the subtle ways that hegemonic masculinity continues to pervade the workplace.

2. Ongoing training. Continued instruction and all other forms of teambuilding activities have been proven to help form communal bonds amongst your team members as well as motivate individuals to be more productive. Training is also a clear sign that upper management respects its team. Altogether, this means reduced absenteeism, less turnover, fewer hours devoted to onboarding and cleaner guestrooms – in other words, healthy savings on the bottom line. You might also consider here cross-departmental activities to reduce insularity and further enhance others’ comprehension of the rigors of being a housekeeper.

To address one other concern cited in the Oxfam report, it is important that you are educating your staff on the proper ways to handle hazardous chemicals and avert any harm that results from constant exposure. For this, start by reaching out to your current vendors to see how they can help, or consider switching to safer or organic products.

3. Corrective exercises. Not only is housekeeping physically demanding but, because it involves a lot of repeated movements room-after-room, employees here are also highly prone to repetitive strain injuries (RSIs). As the Oxfam paper suggests, often times housekeepers do not immediately report their chronic injuries nor are they granted short-term disability leave, both scenarios of which can ultimately translate into a contagiously low morale amongst the entire team.

The first step here is to train your staff to use the proper techniques when cleaning a guestroom to prevent the body from going into a strenuous position. Even better, though, would be to install an adjacent program where each morning – before, during or after the morning lineup – your team performs a series of exercises and stretches that actively work to mitigate any joint pain or muscular dysfunction.

4. Enhanced security and communication. One aspect of the Oxfam report that should never be neglected is the harassment that some female housekeepers endure at the hands of guests and, sadly, by some of their male coworkers. While I will leave the latter instances to your human resources department to dutifully resolve, I can suggest sensitivity training and creating a culture where women feel safe to report any transgressions as two possible first steps. The former involving guests, however, must be given the utmost care insofar as finding a solution, for which technology can now play a very active role.

With the rise of digital alarm systems and hotelier apps that heighten communication, no housekeeper should be without a personal device, meaning that they are only one or two buttons away from an alert being sent out to security. You might also consider hallway cameras as well as improvements to the protocols for which housekeepers can operate separately instead of in pairs or loose teams. And as an additional benefit, any practice taken towards heightening security will also work to hinder other related issues like theft or unauthorized visitors on private floors.

(Article by Larry Mogelonsky, originally published in HOTELS Magazine on Tuesday, October 31, 2017)