Caste out the nasty side of hierarchies

23 July 2007
Caste out the nasty side of hierarchies

Love of hierarchies in the hospitality industry is damaging its potential for success, warns Julian Saipe, managing director of party caterer Zafferano

The first half of George Orwell's famous book Down and Out in Paris and London contains a riveting and often hilarious account of his experiences working as a dishwasher in a large Paris hotel in the 1920s.

Among the many things that fascinate Orwell about the hotel is its "elaborate caste system" and he writes that "our staff had their prestige graded as accurately as that of soldiers".

Of course, conditions in the industry have improved greatly since the book was written in 1933, but the "caste system" is often just as strong as it was then. Indeed, don't TV programmes even make comedy out of it when a restaurant trainee gets sworn at or insulted by the boss?

Some people may think that makes good TV, but does it make for happy customers? I doubt it. Nobody works better after being humiliated or insulted, and after all, what really matters is the overall service that's being delivered to the customer who pays the bill and understandably wants a great time.

My own branch of our industry - party catering - frequently features its own caste system, too. Party planners and head chefs are unlikely to be too happy feeling they're on the same level as waiting staff, while waiting staff will feel they're "higher up" than kitchen porters.

How helpful are these attitudes, though? The answer must surely be not at all. The point is, hierarchies are really about ego, and about some people feeling inherently better than other people because of what they do.

But who, really, is to say that some members of a team are more important than others? A cleaner at Nasa was once asked by a visitor what exactly he did. "I'm helping to put a man on the moon," the cleaner replied - and who's to say he wasn't right?

The remedy seems clear: use job demarcations, but don't let yourself be hidebound by hierarchies that are unhelpful, uncreative and often plain nasty. Instead, try to work together not only as a team but also a family.

It's no coincidence that family businesses in our industry often number among the most well-run and enduring.

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