Don’t bury your head in the sand



Being a good leader is more than balancing a difficult budget or engaging an audience with a captivating speech. Although those experiences are wonderful when they happen, the truth is the most effective leaders I’ve known are people who stay in front of the sensitive topics most of us would rather avoid. Simply put, they don’t bury their heads in the sand and hope a problem will go away, or better yet, foolishly convince themselves it will never really escalate. Instead, strong leaders heavily weigh each situation, get in front of the topic, and take action to gain some control.

Many evolving problems can occur more often than not because we’re an industry comprised of people, and people can be unpredictable.

However, if trained properly, our workforce can also evolve into a strong army that helps protect and thwart future problems as harrowing as human trafficking and sexual harassment.

We’re living in an era where society believes social responsibility is more important than profits. I believe it’s our duty as communities, businesses, and association leaders to be willing partners in educating our staff on important and sensitive topics. Quite frankly, as business leaders, we tend to spend more time playing defense than offense. We’re busy fighting the numerous issues that affect our bottom line every day, such as minimum wage increases, paid sick leave, Airbnb growth, predictive scheduling, and dozens of other legislative bills shifting around in our state capitols. I’m not suggesting we ignore these battles. Quite the contrary, it’s our job to speak out and advocate on behalf of our industry. But when there’s an opportunity for us to show the compassionate side of ourselves, we need to make sure we take advantage and get ahead of the topic.

It’s important to understand the hospitality industry has been painted with the human trafficking brush. Airlines and many hotels have started comprehensive employee training to spot the signs. What’s also important to note is hotels are legally required to provide education to help stop this. However, the problem is mounting. This has led to one of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association’s 2020 association goals: To help craft a piece of legislation that would regulate the transient marketplace. In addition, we’re implementing a program to educate restaurant owners so they may educate their staff to see the signs of human trafficking. If we don’t face the fact it could happen anywhere, we’ll lose the opportunity to stop it somewhere.

One of my largest supporters, AAHOA has been in front of this topic for quite some time. The fact they took an early lead on this sensitive issue will no doubt position them ahead of others. Their bold action inspired me to add this topic to our Labor Summit this spring where I’ll address restaurant owners who may not have considered implementing such a program. If we raise our heads high and speak out about what we are doing to help, we become less ignorant and more caring.

Last year’s #MeToo movement jolted our nation to the prevalence of sexual harassment surrounding us. Women and men came out in droves confessing to an array of harassment experiences in their lives and careers. A prime example of this was when, sadly, dozens of female gymnasts spoke out about inappropriate touching by their team’s physician. This discovery eventually led to an avalanche of sexual harassment claims against the USA Gymnastics Organization, ending with the discovery of two decades of abuse and 368 women’s lives changed forever. Wikipedia refers to this moment as “undetected by a lax system of oversight.” I call it bad leadership. Period. USGO leaders failed these women, many of them minors, as well as the organization. Teaching to recognize these problems helps curve the situation and gives victims the courage to come forward.

It’s not surprising to overhear our industry described as a hotbed for sexual harassment. In fact, at the height of the #MeToo movement, a salacious feature article appeared in my state titled “Sex, harassment and abuse: An Inside look at the dark side of N.J. restaurants.” We need to change this, or better yet, end it completely. It starts at the top, with us. We need to push employee education about what constitutes harassment and ensure those who could be vulnerable are safe. I recently worked with my state’s legislature to pass a bill that would require all New Jersey hotel rooms to instill panic buttons. This will not only benefit hotel staff, especially housekeepers, who, sadly, receive the brunt of sexual harassment, but also guests. We need the public to know that we will always choose safety over the bottom line.

It’s exciting for all of us to know that we have the chance to tell great stories about the people we employ and the opportunities we provide. Part of what makes a good leader is advocating for those in need while staying alert to all activities going on in our businesses so we can stand up and protect our employees. By having knowledge of all parts of the hospitality industry, good and bad, we can establish the change we want to see.

Marilou Halvorsen is the president and CEO of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association (NJRHA).


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