How understanding, identifying, and addressing unconscious bias in the hotel industry can improve the customer experience
By NEHA GUPTA
After a racially, politically, and economically tense 2020, the last thing hotel brands, and the entire hospitality industry, can afford is endorsing bias. If there’s a perception that your hotel or its franchise discriminates against a certain demographic, you’ll not only lose business, you will permanently damage your reputation.
Generally, hotels try to deliver excellence to every guest and may think they are, in turn, bias-free. In reality, many of the employees may harbor bias and openly display that bias without even realizing it. This is unconscious bias; and understanding why it exists and what to do about it is important in protecting your operations, brand, guests, and employees.
While unconscious bias is something to which we are all susceptible, the good news is that it can be overcome with awareness and training, allowing hotels to build a better workplace culture while improving the guest experience.
UNCONSCIOUS BIAS IS HUMAN NATURE
Unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, is a default byproduct of how our brains are wired to a certain extent. We experience things and automatically incorporate those experiences into our memory for future use so our brain can make decisions faster. Unconscious bias, which once served us as a survival mechanism, can now stand in our way of supporting equity, diversity, and inclusion in the environments around us.
For example, if you were bitten by a dog at some point in your life, you may instinctively tense up if you see a dog on the street or in a friend’s home. It doesn’t mean the dog will hurt you, but your brain has developed an unconscious bias that tells you to be wary of dogs, regardless of whether they pose any real danger to you.
Research has shown that when someone’s environment is highly insular, a narrow view may emerge that can manifest itself within that person’s biases. This is not limited to any country, ethnicity, or profession; it is simply a part of human existence and is not deliberate and often not from a place of poor judgment or immorality.
For example, tall people are generally seen as more effective leaders than their shorter counterparts, even though height has nothing to do with whether someone will make a good executive. This is backed up by numerous studies, including a survey showing that 58% of the CEOs at Fortune 500 companies were 6 feet or taller, compared to just 14.5% of men in the U.S. population.
Women may be viewed as better housekeepers; men might be perceived as better at handling finances. The group of friends who arrive at your hotel on Harley-Davidson motorcycles could concern you because you fear they might tear the place apart; in reality, they could turn out to be model guests.
If we all have unconscious biases, why are some bad? Individually, these biases and many, many others can be difficult to overcome. Organizationally, the effect of negative unconscious bias multiplies and, inevitably, influences how guests are treated. That’s when the private organizational gap becomes a public scandal.
THE RISK OF UNCHECKED UNCONSCIOUS BIAS
I have personally encountered unconscious bias in the hospitality industry. While visiting another country, a friend and I went to a highly regarded restaurant that I’d heard about. It was one of those days when I was tired, so my hair was bundled up and a little messy. I didn’t look like my usual self.
When I asked if seating was available, the front staff gave me a weird look and then seated us near the kitchen. I asked for a table in the nicer part of the restaurant, but the staff said it wasn’t possible even though the restaurant was mostly empty. It took me a few seconds to realize that they didn’t think I belonged at the restaurant based on how I looked. I started speaking in an American accent, using big words, and offered to
pay for a nicer table. Their demeanor changed immediately.
After leaving, I left an online review encouraging patrons to stay away from a place that doesn’t know how to treat every customer as someone who deserves respect and a great experience.
I’m just one person, but in today’s cultural environment, the poor experiences of many individuals add up quickly, especially in the hospitality industry. A Harvard study from the previous decade found that 70.3% of foodservice employees exhibit unconscious racial bias. Hotels are at just as much risk as restaurants, maybe more so, because guests are spending more than a couple of hours at your business and are relying on you to keep them safe and comfortable.
Modern consumers, especially millennials and Generation Z, are more socially conscious and demand that the brands they support be socially conscious as well. Inclusion is no longer optional: It’s a right and an obligation up to which all businesses must live.
Brand and experience are everything to a hotel. Before you can impress guests with amenities, service, and value, you need to get them in the door, make them comfortable, and then impress them enough to bring them back and tell others to visit. Your hotel’s operation must protect that brand. This includes creating experiences in which you acknowledge the diversity of your employees and your customers while making guests feel at home. In the process, you’ll make your hotel a better place to work, as well as a better place to visit.
True Office Learning CEO Neha Gupta is responsible for the company’s product and technology vision, strategy, and growth. Neha previously served as Senior Director of Learning Solutions and Strategic Initiatives at New York Stock Exchange Governance Services and as Citigroup’s Chief of Staff for the Institutional Clients Group Technology organization. She is an avid traveler and strong advocate of supporting the hospitality industry around the globe.
Overcoming Unconscious Bias
Hotels employ a vast spectrum of workers with varied life experiences, just like most other organizations. Implicit biases aren’t as easily identifiable as, say, blatantly intolerant attitudes. In other words, you can’t avoid employing plenty of outstanding, fundamentally decent people who might have a few unconscious biases that are incompatible with your business goals.
Therefore, change needs to also come at a higher level, with your executives, your managers, your branding, and your operations. The example you set and the actions you take can derail many unconscious biases before they turn into problems. Here are five steps to consider:
Be Honest Hotels looking to reduce bias and become more inclusive must be willing to engage in difficult conversations. Are you ostracizing certain demographics when it comes to your properties? What biases are prevalent in your leaders’ hiring practices? Are women employees being promoted as often as men? Do employees judge the role of another employee at the hotel based on their ethnicity or gender? Some hard truths may arise from your discussions, but without them, you’ll struggle to discover which biases are continually hurting employees, guests, and, ultimately, the business.
Provide Employee Training You’ll never eliminate unconscious bias, but you can train employees on how to better give others a fresh chance to get to know somebody before making a decision about them. The best training strategies are experiential, immersing employees in real-life scenarios in which they recognize how to act, as well as how it feels to walk a mile in guests’ shoes. Often, that cognition is enough to improve diversity and inclusion as employees interact with guests and each other.
Offer Leadership Training Executives and managers benefit from experiential training, but they also need something more to ensure that the operational culture is diverse, equitable, and inclusive. If hiring and employee development are hampered by unconscious bias, the hotel won’t run as efficiently or attract top talent. Eventually, that dissatisfaction will trickle down to the guest experience. Alternately, when leadership sets an example of inclusion, rank-and-file employees will follow; again, this will affect the guest experience in a positive manner.
Create Safety In many industries, unconscious bias festers because employees are too afraid to speak up when they witness behavior and attitudes that hurt the brand. Hotels are no exception to this problem, and given the transient nature of some hospitality roles, employees won’t risk losing their jobs to report an incident, even if there is no risk. Therefore, create safe, even anonymous, mechanisms for workers to raise concerns when they see bias, same as other harassment or fraud violations. And if they’ve been trained well, they’ll better recognize bias when it happens.
Follow the Data The right bias training doesn’t just train; it reveals what employees know, what they’re learning, and what they’re struggling to learn. A technology-enabled approach will give you data from which you can establish a behavioral baseline that will help guide strategy, identify areas of concern, and take steps toward fixing those problems.