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Viewpoint: Pendulum swings in workers' favour

20 November 2019 by
Viewpoint: Pendulum swings in workers' favour

With unemployment currently at record lows, hospitality businesses must be willing to understand and meet staff demands – and that's no bad thing, says Peter Hancock

I have never served in the armed forces but I assume it is still the case that orders are followed without question. How else, in an emergency, could the command structure perform effectively? When split-second decisions can mean the difference between life and death, there is surely no space for debate.

Not so long ago, hotels and restaurants operated along similar lines, with front of house and kitchen teams adopting a strict hierarchy, whereby you instantly obeyed your boss's instructions and expected those under your own supervision to do the same.

Such compliance, at least in the private sector, was based on the simple principle of market forces. So long as there were more jobseekers than vacancies to be filled, employers could call the shots.

Well, the tables have certainly turned now that we have just 3.8% unemployment in the UK, by comparison with most countries a remarkably low figure. Anecdotally I hear from hoteliers of new recruits who, far from trembling at the knees when reprimanded by their manager for being late, are just as likely to tell them to get stuffed and walk out. Others say they are treading on eggshells for fear of hurting younger workers' feelings or for failing to take their needs into account when, for example, drawing up the weekly rota.

That the pendulum has swung at all is surely to be welcomed. Our industry seems at last to be shaking off its old reputation for exploitative practices and is instead becoming a beacon of enlightened management.

My guess is that these factors will cause even greater polarisation in the hotel sector, with budget hotels becoming virtually "self-service" operations, while luxury properties go to the other extreme, offering amazing service and passing on the cost in the form of higher prices. Let's remember that the rental sector, including Airbnb, already competes with us massively thanks to its relatively non-existent payroll; where our advantage can't be lower prices, it has to be better service instead.

But throughout the industry, if it is to attract staff from elsewhere, a new approach to man management is unavoidable.

There is an elephant in the room, the awkward topic nobody much enjoys discussing… and that is salaries.

No matter how caring or inspiring the leadership, everyone has bills to pay and the current buoyancy of the labour market means few people with portable skills need to accept pay at or fractionally above the legal minimum.

Faced with so many other burdens, the last thing most businesses need right now is a rising payroll cost, but there's no escaping economic reality.

On the plus side, as it becomes generally known that hospitality offers decent pay on top of the flexible hours and rapid progression for which it has always been recognised,we may finally be rid of the perception that it is a second rather than a first choice of career.

Peter Hancock is chief executive of Pride of Britain Hotels

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