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The Housekeeper’s Tale: Perspective on Harassment in the Hospitality Industry

As a woman business traveler, I’ve accumulated a wealth of stories reminding me that, no matter how hard a hotel might try to design the travel experience around my personal safety, the parameters for me are always going to be different from those of my male colleagues. For example, there is no feeling of despair quite like being alone at a series of long corridors faced with a dysfunctional key card, or entering a deserted hotel lobby after a long day on the road. Being a woman traveler means more than hairdryers and good lighting, it’s about an expectation of personal safety. And if that’s true for me as a guest, I recognize it must also be true for the people who make up my room, who serve my coffee at breakfast or my cocktail at dinner.

In this age of heightened awareness, are hotel workers especially susceptible to harassment? According to a recent United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report, the answer is yes. Sexual harassment in particular has become a serious problem for women working in hospitality, due in no small part, the report explains, to, “the unusual hours and conditions of work, the interactions of persons in the delivery of service, and traditional personnel practices in the industry.” In conversations with my customers I’m becoming more and more aware that where instances of harassment do occur, it’s not through any kind of negligence or indifference on their part, I believe it’s more to do with the very nature of hospitality itself, that women, often working alone, in the intimate environment of hotel bedrooms can fall victim to the kinds of behavior that might be unthinkable elsewhere in the corporate world. Added to that is a culture where workers may, for any number of reasons, be reluctant to report any incidents when they do occur.

Employing over seven million women in the United States, the stories of those housekeepers, waitresses, bar staff and servers have been seldom heard, but the gathering momentum of the #Metoo movement is forcing us all to reevaluate and consider the impact of these kinds of guest/worker interactions that represent such a clear and present risk for our industry. As a way of encouraging women to share their own stories, and to shed a clearer light on the kinds of situations their members face every day, Chicago’s UNITE HERE Local 1, began the #ComeForward campaign a couple of years ago as a way of encouraging hotel workers to challenge the culture of silence that surrounds sexual harassment in the workplace. Detailed in the subsequent ‘Hands Off’ report, the findings, and the stories behind them, had a profound impact on our industry and clearly illustrated the kinds of situations these women face almost as a daily occurrence. One cocktail server reported that a guest, “kept asking for my number. I kept telling him I had a boyfriend and he didn’t care. He kept following me from floor to floor.” Another, a housekeeper, recalled an incident where a guest exposed himself to her. “I knocked on the guest door. I announced myself and the guest answered, ‘Come in.’ I opened the door and he was naked. It was horrible,” she recalls. Perhaps tellingly, of the hospitality workers surveyed in the report, only a percentage said they had told their supervisor or manager about incidents where a guest sexually harassed them. The most common reasons given for not reporting being a belief that little can be done to address indecent guest behavior. More worrying still, some women explained that they chose not to report some sexual harassment because inappropriate guest behavior is so frequent and widespread, it “feels normal” they said, or they had become “immune” to it. That didn’t change the fact that over half of the women surveyed claimed to have felt uncomfortable because of a something a guest did or something they had said.

In my conversations with my customers, the TraknProtect panic button is becoming a good place to start changing that sense of helplessness: It empowers the worker with the knowledge that wherever they are in the hotel, help can be at hand literally at the press of a button. At the same time, it empowers the hotel with the knowledge that not only are they compliant with local ordinances, and are successfully mitigating their liability risk, they are also taking important steps to secure the safety of their staff. Measures like these are just part of what I see as being a growing and encouraging movement in our industry. The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) and the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence (NAESV) has partnered to develop crucial online training programs with the aim of raising awareness to the occurrences of sexual violence in the workplace. “The safety and security of our employees and guests is paramount for our industry and the issue of sexual violence is one we have always taken very seriously,” Katherine Lugar, President and CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association recently declared. “As an industry, we are committed to ensuring hotel employers and operators have these necessary tools and resources to educate employees on guidelines and best practices to help avoid unsafe situations, protect themselves and guests from harassment, assaults or injuries, and respond to and report any kind of inappropriate behavior or misconduct,” she added. Elsewhere, hospitality leaders are developing their own sexual harassment training and personal security programs in concerted efforts to change the culture of silence and unawareness.

From my perspective this can only be good news, for workers, employers and guests alike. Improved safety makes for a more positive work environment for everyone, while stronger communication and well-defined policies all translate to a smoother, more efficiently run hotel operation and a resulting enhanced guest experience. It’s win, win all around, and that has to be a better story for the hospitality industry. And one that’s well worth repeating.

When not guiding and growing the company, TraknProtect CEO & Founder Parminder Batra can be found around the world, exploring her love for travel. She is also passionate about children and education, volunteering her time to support causes that facilitate education for children in underserved areas.


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