Cornell dean on harassment, promoting women

Cornell University's Kate Walsh
Cornell University’s Kate Walsh

Kate Walsh, dean and E. M. Statler Professor Management & Organizational Behavior School of Hotel Administration, Cornell University, has researched how to retain and develop women professionals in organizational leadership roles as well as the challenge of changing corporate culture. She knows the pressures of the hotel business firsthand, having worked as director of training and development for Nikko Hotels International, as corporate training manager for the former Bristol Hotels, and as a senior auditor for Loews Corp. In a recent interview, Walsh discussed how hotels can embrace the #MeToo movement and better retain and promote women professionals.

HOTELS: We’re hearing about so many cases of sexual harassment, yet hotels say they have systems and process in place to address the risk. Is there a disconnect?

Kate Walsh: People choose, for lots of important reasons, to use them or not use them. #MeToo has brought to light what’s between the lines, all the subtleties, the small little paper cuts that add up and the egregious ones that somehow are acceptable.

H: Is the hotel industry more susceptible than other industries?
KW: There are many work relationships in a hotel that are defined by a power differential, such as between a guest and the housekeeper, or a chef and a server. A kitchen is, by nature, hierarchical. In the past, some at the top of the hierarchy, such as chefs, engaged in behaviors that some say are inappropriate and unacceptable. And, of course, as much as we try to control for it, hotel guests are often unpredictable. In addition, you have people working as part of a 24/7 schedule, which includes off hours and weekends. It’s not a traditional work environment and can lead to a hotel, and its staff, being forced to react to potentially offensive situations. 

H: What is your prescription for reform?

KW: The culture has to change in terms of making all employees feel like they are in a safe place to contribute and not feel any sort of bias, discriminatory behavior or harassment.

Human resource department initiatives are helpful but they don’t work unless there’s a full commitment from the top. You want a leader who will say, “I want to make sure, to the degree we can, that every employee feels a connection with somebody in a leadership role — whether the connection is through age, gender, sexual orientation, religion or national origin.” Then you’re going to get a great result.

H: Are there operational changes hotels can initiate to minimize the chance for conflict?

KW: I just stayed at a hotel that was using a robot to deliver room service. It’s an interesting concept. Some guests may feel uncomfortable opening their door to an employee and letting him into the room. And some employees may feel uncomfortable entering that room. This solution potentially reduces risk all around and protects employees from potentially uncomfortable situations.

Room attendants also can be in vulnerable situations. Their safety is paramount, and hotels often work to protect them by pairing them up and establishing protocols for if or when they need assistance. By nature of their jobs, we have to provide them with additional backup and protection. 

H: Would promoting more women into senior management lead hotels to adopt more proactive policies to address sexual harassment? Would the outcomes for housekeepers be better?

KW: I would think anybody with a different viewpoint could bring a perspective that would add value. A female manager can say, “This is what it feels like for this person.”

H: What keeps women from being promoted into senior management at hotels?

KW: Women professionals in the hospitality industry face relevant career challenges.  At different career phases, but especially when raising a young family, it becomes difficult to work the nontraditional hours often required, especially for the salary that accompanies these roles. In addition, many professionals are unwilling to disrupt their non-work lives to eventually move to the C-suite, as it may require relocating to new positions in new hotels and moving their families to new locations. 

H: What has to change?

KW: Companies need to take a long-term view and help women when they become parents. They need to make space for women professionals so they feel that they can contribute at various career stages. Having more women in senior roles changes the culture from the top down. Our industry can and should do a lot more to develop the career paths of all professionals, but especially its female talent.


HOTELS contributor Judith Crown interviewed Walsh