Hotel Online  Special Report


A Happy Union? Raffles Internationalís Recent Labour
Troubles in Cambodia Raise Interesting Issues

By Mark Keith, HOTEL Asia Pacific - August 2004

The recent termination of 300 staff in Cambodia by Raffles International will, no doubt, become part of local hotel lore. It is not our aim here to point fingers or determine who is right and who is wrong in this particular dispute, but the case does raise some interesting general issues about hotel management/staff relationships.

[Editor's note: the following points are in no way referring to Raffles or its Cambodian properties, but are observations about the industry in general.]

Most parts of Asia have not, generally, been exposed to the tactics of the sophisticated unions of North America and Europe. In the Philippines, or other Asian countries where unions are active, it is relatively easy to negotiate, as the unions lack the muscle and political savvy of their Western counterparts. 

However, these negotiations come at a price - one that has a direct influence on front-line service staff who carry the bags, serve the food, check-in the guests and ultimately create the experience that will carry huge word-of-mouth influence.

The simple truth is that service is a direct consequence of how employees are treated - and that, ultimately, depends on the example set by their employers.

People, unlike marble or fabrics, cannot be rejected because of flaws. The service jobs are often filled by staff who have received limited education, and whose previous employment experience, if any, might have been in farming, fishing, construction or manufacturing. 

Many service staff have virtually no reference point on how to behave in a hotel. The journey from their rural homes to the luxurious and opulent "palace" is a see-saw, cross-cultural journey lined with cultural shocks. 

They are eager and impressionable, but the lessons from their parents or previous teachers have no relevance in this luxurious new setting. Their dress code, grooming values and interpersonal behaviour will largely be shaped by the examples set by their managers. And, in the end, this "modelling" will determine the service that the guests experience.

If only it were that simple.

Service perfection cannot be achieved or maintained like a building project - it is the culmination of a number of complex and delicate inter-linked relationships. 

The front-level staff member has a relationship with his/her peers, his/her supervisor and his/her supervisor's manager. Depending on the complexity of the organisational structure, there may be several other layers of management that also have an influence on staff members. 

But, in a region with an ingrained respect for authority and power, individual managers can wield influence like that of feudal barons, and they have an overpowering influence on establishing the "norms" of behaviour. 

If those in power act with indifference and arrogance, then that abuse of power will be replicated when it comes to interacting with the guests. 

We all know how easy it is to get through to a hotel guest - just spell the name, and you will be put through immediately. Try, on the other hand, to reach a hotel's manager or a department head, and you will usually find layers of telephonists and secretaries, or recorded messages. 

Hoteliers susceptible to unchecked "ego obesity" often begin to believe that they are mini celebrities, but this kind of power projection can be damaging to vulnerable egos who must answer to them. Their behaviour is observed and often subconsciously absorbed and copied by staff. 

The level of service at any hotel is determined by a complicated set of factors, including the way individual staff feel they are managed - including the training they receive, how they feel about themselves, their job and the company. 

The relationships that culminate in the staff/customer relationship are complex. It normally starts with the relationship between the owner and the GM or management company. 

Every member of staff has an opinion and a perception of this relationship, and this is the most influential relationship in the hotel. 

Add to that an owner's influence over the finance or purchasing department, which can have a deep influence on front-line staff member who have to deliver the service. 

It's also not uncommon for an owner to have a relative or "special friend" embedded in the organisation, who exercise their ego-centric power to influence the culture.

This undermines the legitimate authority structure and creates a culture of favour and privilege - which is totally at odds with service excellence. 

But the final determining factor on any given day is what their manager/supervisor did or didn't do to spark their staff's desire to achieve excellence. 

For many front-line people, it's just a case of turning up for work, getting ignored and letting their default behaviour kick in.

[* Editor's note: Raffles defended the dismissals at its two hotels in Cambodia, explaining that when a strike by the workers - over service-charge payments - had been declared illegal by two Cambodian courts, the workers had 48 hours to return to their jobs. When they failed to do so, they were considered to have committed an act of gross misconduct, which resulted in their dismissals. The workers claimed they tried to return to their jobs but were turned away. Raffles said it did everything in compliance with the laws of Cambodia.]

Mark Keith is MD of HVS Executive Search, based in Hong Kong, overseeing hotel search assignments throughout Asia Pacific. Email:

First appeared in HOTEL Asia Pacific

© Copyright HOTEL Asia Pacific [The entire issue of HOTEL Asia Pacific magazine (64 pages) can be downloaded in PDF format from . It is available FREE to qualified industry professionals.]



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