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I Smell a Rat

I smell a rat. I can't help it, I do. Every day for the past few weeks, as I drive to work, I pass by a large inflatable rat. Maybe it does not actually smell—it is plastic after all—but it certainly does get my attention.

The rat is a symbol of sorts, and a sign of trouble for the hospitality industry. The direct cause for the inflatable rat is a contract dispute between a nearby Hilton hotel and its employees. It is not necessary to delve into the details of the labor troubles currently confronting the industry. Both labor and management have their own websites and the level of rancor is probably no more than a typical strike in the industry. Still, the sight of an inflatable rat suggests that for this hotel at least, relations between management and employees are troubled. Calling your employer a rat, and announcing it to ten of thousands of passers by on a major highway is not a step one should take lightly. It suggests a level of alienation and it makes you wonder, even after the dispute is resolved, how successful will alienated employees be in delivering your brand's message?

Many hotels and restaurants are of two minds when it comes to employees. On the one hand, most hospitality operators recognize that building loyalty and longevity among employees has a direct correlation with profitability and efficiency. On the other hand, with high turnover endemic, most employees at the hotel or restaurant level are treated as interchangeable cogs without value. More than anything else, it is these perceived slights that drive labor relations problems. Sometimes it is the little things that matter most.

Of course this dispute takes place in a particularly charged political context. With the ongoing debate on immigration "reform" the two sides could not be further apart, nor the stakes higher. Tighter restrictions on guest workers and the call for mass deportations of illegal immigrants threaten to squeeze the labor supply for our industry.

On this issue both employees and employers in our industry can agree. It is our common ground. Even legal residents now are caught up with the plight of family and friends. Fortunately, this debate has actually brought about a greater level of activism and participation than has happened in many decades (for immigration policy, at least). Mass demonstrations earlier this year in favor of amnesty swept across the country. To be sure hospitality industry representatives have lobbied for guest worker programs and easing of some restrictions. Still, when President Bush addressed the National Restaurant Association in May, he gave short shrift to the cause of immigration reform and no one in the room seemed willing to impress upon him the importance of the issue to the industry. It was, to be sure, an opportunity lost.

What does this have to do with technology? In addition to implementing systems, IT leaders are exactly that--leaders. Immigration reform has a very real impact on the lives of employees. Managers and companies have a true opportunity to show workers how much they are valued. The question then is: Do we appreciate what our employees bring and want to keep them? I don't feel much like a rat, do you?

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