Three Learnings from the 2018 HR in Hospitality Conference & Expo

The setting was Las Vegas in early March of this year, and my destination was the well-organized, annual conference devoted to the major HR issues affecting the hospitality sector. Congratulations to the Cornell University planning committee and the sponsors who produced this event. It has taken me more than one month to digest all the presentations, free-flowing ideas shared during networking sessions, and the multitude of vendor claims. It has also taken time to process all the feedback received from our breakout session on assessment, as well as our panel on some of the most hot-button topics facing companies.

From my point-of-view, there were three key takeaways that – unwittingly or not – will shape an organization’s SOPs and by default, its enterprise culture:

#MeToo movement

Understandably, dominating much of the conference was the subject of sexual harassment in all its guises, and the corresponding need for more stringent policies and standardized investigative procedures that are fair to all parties. On this point, companies must rely on their HR and legal functions, more than ever, to stay current on regulations and ethical guidelines that should be the basis for clear recommendations to be implemented efficiently and effectively enterprise-wide.

But curiously, these general conversations about discrimination often evolved into broader debates about tolerance and other aspects of workplace discrimination. As you might expect, this touched on the sensitive issues of immigration status and individual and “company” political affiliations. This harkens to the well-publicized case in which James Damore, the former Google engineer who was fired after distributing a memo questioning the company’s diversity policies, filed a class-action lawsuit claiming that the technology giant discriminates against white men and conservatives.

This apparent turn of events should give pause to HR professionals who know well — and perhaps personally experienced — the classic “glass ceiling” faced by women who strive to advance their careers often amidst a “good ole boys club.” The dilemma boils down to the simple issue of how “merit should nullify demographics” in one scenario but not the other.

Situations can become even more nuanced, if not downright hairier, as organizations address circumstances that come with differing opinions (internal and external to organizations) over employees with undocumented status. Of course, this is a marked challenge for the hospitality industry, and particularly in certain states within the USA. Obviously, there are many opinions on this topic and companies must ultimately find their way. My take is that companies publicly proclaiming to value and embrace “diversity,” and therefore demand respect for all its employees, likewise should be prepared to give it to those with dissenting perspectives and offer valuable “intellectual diversity.”

Unwanted turnover

Bench-strength in terms of competency-set and sufficient employee numbers, of course, has tactical and strategic implications (i.e., think recruitment, training, and succession planning). As such, it makes sense that this issue is a consistent topic of conversations and presentations. But this year, the challenge specifically pinpointed “retaining high performers” up and down the org chart.

HR leverages many tools, like engagement surveys and exit interviews, to understand important factors that drive away good workers, but such information doesn’t necessarily translate into easily-actioned SOPs. HRIS and CRM systems have arguably ushered in an era of “big data” with respect to HR and organizational performance. Yet “data” is not always synonymous with “insights.” Therefore, companies must stop viewing continued education for its HR and marketing professionals as “nice to haves” and instead see it as critical priorities and investments. Conferences like the “HR in Hospitality & Expo” allow attendees to see case studies from consultants and fellow practitioners on what works and what doesn’t. Innovation is not about dreaming up entirely new approaches, but rather applying existing knowledge or technologies to new scenarios.

And how does all this apply to unwanted turnover? Well, academic research and fieldwork collectively underscore the importance of “internal branding initiatives” to engage and retain employees. Good paychecks typically are a condition of satisfaction for employees, but they don’t determine ongoing performance and longevity. What a company stands for, and how this filters down the everyday employee experience, is a vital but often overlooked element of organizational branding. When was the last time your senior leadership drove a conversation about brand experience for its employees versus just the customers?

New technologies

Topical buzzwords permeate every conference – such as “engagement,” “social media,” and “millennials” – they were popular in years past. This time the ubiquitous phrase was “artificial intelligence (AI).” It sounds hip, smart and cutting-edge, but that’s typically the extent of what the typical lay-person or even seasoned HR professional know about it.

The conference included an excellent overview of AI, which was appreciated by the attendees. That said, the presentation didn’t really reveal the extent to which AI applications are difficult (and often costly) to set up. The potential is certainly there for companies with the budget and bold vision to leverage this technology, but it will take a domain expert to implement, and right now, this means consultants.

In particular, several panels attempted to explain how the evolving technology of AI has practical and significant value in employee selection. For instance, AllyO ( is an elegantly simple system that engages with job applicants in real-time using adaptive algorithms to steer the conversation and process. Another panel, led by the author, addressed the potential and limitations of cutting-edge psychometrics (i.e., “Item Response Theory”: in assessments designed to bolster employee screening, selection, and development. Not only do these specific psychometric approaches yield the most reliable and valid outcomes but, they also protect companies against hidden forms of test-taker discrimination or bias. Without question, companies shouldn’t ever use HR assessments that aren’t legally defensible.

Finally, it was wonderful to see Erin Janklow, CEO of Entrada, at the conference. Her breakthrough system teaches employees new languages during the course of their normal workdays. This isn’t a classroom or seminar process but more akin to a personal, real-time, and on-demand language coach. HR pros who work with diverse global teams are encouraged to learn more about this approach – see The ROI here can be substantial for fostering increased employee engagement, marketability, and development – not to mention the positive effect it can have in bridging the frustrating communication gaps between customers and the guest-facing employees.

Other attendees or presenters might highlight different learnings, but these three topics are noteworthy since, (i) they have both tactical and strategic implications and, (ii) wanted or not, they are confronting all industries including hospitality and tangential service businesses. A competitive advantage awaits those companies that proactively and thoughtfully address and negotiate these challenges. Many organizations have already held their annual strategic planning sessions, but maybe its time to introduce “pulse sessions” that revisit initial plans and discuss new variables that affect Purpose, Mission, Values, and Strategies. Q2 is the perfect opportunity, and hopefully, these three learnings will make the agenda.


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