The Stunted Job

stuntedjobTaken from the book: Human Resource Case Studies, By Martin Gabriel, © HRmatters21

The following case study is one that I have used, over and over again, to illustrate fair compensation and salary increment when conducting my workshops.

The HR Director of a prestigious five star hotel invited me to a meeting and I was told to prepare material relevant to salary increment and promotion. I met the HR Director, who told me, “Martin I have a problem. I want to ensure that my employees receive salary increments, but I have a particular problem with a certain vocation”. I asked him which vocation, and he told me it was the doorman. What he said made sense to me: every year the doorman received a salary increment of between three to five per cent, but his job size remained the same. For example, if the salary of the doorman was S$1,200, an increment of four percent would mean that his base salary would become S$1,248. An increment of four per cent the following year would equate to an amount of $50 and his base salary would rise to S$1,298. In other words, the task of opening and closing the door for guests, will become more and more expensive with each passing year. The job-scope, however, remained essentially the same: opening and closing the doors and smiling at guests.

The vital question was: how do you reward an employee who does a job that cannot grow? Apparently, the hotel’s management was also thinking about retrenching the doorman and replacing his job with technology; the doors would be fitted with sensors that automatically opened and closed them, much like the kind that are found in shopping centres. I told the HR Director that his hotel was a five-star hotel and that the doorman represented service at the highest level. Having a doorman was actually vital to the hotel’s brand identity. The HR Director and I decided to meet again the following week and I promised to return with research insights into the job-scope of a doorman and other similar vocations that were traditionally regarded as jobs with low or no growth potential.

In conducting my research, I paid a visit to the famous Raffles hotel, which had one of the most distinctive and recognisable doormen around. Somehow, their doorman’s job had evolved into something different. Beyond opening and closing doors and greeting guests, the doorman had become an icon with a distinctive appearance. No tourist could resist the temptation of taking a photograph with a tall and bearded Sikh in a colourful uniform. A bearded Sikh may be a common sight to locals living in multi-racial Singapore, but to a Japanese or European tourist, he was an interesting character and a perfect opportunity to take a photograph to record their unforgettable stay at the hotel. There was added value to the doorman’s job at Raffles hotel, as it involved an aspect of marketing and branding.

I also examined other jobs that were task-oriented and that were rather difficult to add value to if we did not look beyond the task itself. For example, when I made a stop at the petrol station, I noticed that the task of filling up petrol was fairly simple and unskilled; almost anyone could do it, even the customers themselves. Increasing the salary of the petrol pump attendant would also make the act of performing the task more expensive without any gains in productivity. This was the same with waiters and waitresses. Limited opportunities for growth was also an important reason why companies found it difficult to recruit people into these vocations; after all, if an employee’s job-scope could not grow, there would be no reason to raise their salary, and if salaries remained stagnant, what kind of prospects can there be for the employee? I came to the conclusion that the only way to grow these jobs was by thinking out of the box and finding ways to raise the level of service standards and to add new dimensions to the job-scope. The following were my recommendations to the hotel:

  • Ensure that the doorman is distinctive and visible to guests. Dress him up to reflect Singapore’s culture.
  • Include a small stage with a backdrop of a distinctive background of Singapore, along with cultural props, e.g., a trishaw, next to the hotel’s entrance. This gives tourists an opportunity to have a photograph taken with the doorman and trishaw.
  • Charge a small fee for a printed copy of the photograph, along with a decorative frame.
  • The doorman is now, not just a doorman, but also an actor who promotes the hotel’s brand and Singapore’s culture.
  • He now contributes to his own salary (or part of) and can no longer be seen as a ‘liability’.
  • There is now justification for further increments, as there is more potential for growth in his job-scope and responsibilities.
  • Make a concerted effort to promote a tipping culture. This would enable employees in the service sector to earn more based on individual performance. While teamwork is important, one of its drawbacks is that non-performing employees are able to ‘hide’ within the group, allowing others to do the heavy lifting while they harvest the rewards. A tip from the customer would be an immediate reward that would motivate service staff to improve their service. The hotel should actively promote tipping, for example, through signages or having messages printed on bills and receipts to encourage guests to tip the service staff if they are happy with the service rendered.
  • The doorman now has a greater opportunity to earn tips, as the photography service results in an increase in contact-time with guests. This will allow the doorman more time to demonstrate a high level of service.

The HR Director was rather hesitant about my recommendations, which required him to work with marketing and sales personnel. He felt uneasy entering an unfamiliar domain. I advised him that times had changed and that it was important that HR be more than just administrative support; it had to be a business partner contributing to sales as well. Although implementing these recommendations would not be easy and would take at least a year for results to be noticed (there would probably be resistance from employees and involve a fair bit of politics), I managed to persuade the HR Director to present the proposal to the General Manager (GM).

At the meeting with the GM, I presented my ideas and informed him that I had conducted extensive research, including interviewing employees from the service sectors; although this project initially focused on the job-scope of a doorman, the ideas I had, were in principle, also applicable and relevant to most service staff. I had felt that it was crucial to address the labour crunch that was affecting all service workers—not just doormen. I shared with him the following: Employees in the service industry, especially those in fast food, usually retirees, housewives, or those who are in a transitional stage of their lives, such as students who have completed their ‘A’ levels and are waiting to enter university or National Service. These students see such jobs as a way to pass time and earn some pocket money while they are waiting to move on to the next phase of their lives. Not many, if any at all, will choose to build their careers in the service industry. Most prefer white collar jobs upon graduation from polytechnic or university. The managers at such establishments are by and large foreign workers in their 30’s to 40’s—most notably Filipinos, who are usually proficient in English.

Another vulnerable group, made up almost entirely of the elderly, is the cleaners. Cleaning companies find it difficult to recruit locals and to overcome the shortage of manpower, most of these companies place their workers on 12-hour shifts. The result is higher employee turnover, as many elderly workers cannot cope with the long hours. How do we tackle this vicious cycle? In my view, cross-functional training is the answer.

It is indeed a challenge to expand and grow a cleaner’s job, but what if we could train them to take on a secondary role? One of the duties of a cleaner is to clean the lavatory. What if cleaners were trained to do basic plumbing work? They would be able to perform a dual function and consequently be valued more. They do not have to be a professional plumber; they just need to know enough to clear chokes and understand how water is distributed to various outlets. They can also be trained to administer chemicals that prevent chokes within pipe systems. Cross functional training can not only lead to better manpower optimisation but also lend a new lease of life to an individual’s career. A cross-trained cleaner, with additional training, has an option of becoming a plumber, if his cleaning job is ever replaced with technology or lower wage foreign workers. This is why I encourage companies to train their employees in secondary skills that are linked to their primary vocation. In essence, it is not ideal to raise output through increasing hours of work. Instead, we should add value to an employee’s job by redesigning it such that the employee learns more useful skills that are relevant and that contribute to the job.

I eventually managed to convince the GM to give my proposal a shot. Most of my recommendations were implemented—carefully though—as we did not want employees fighting over customers’ tips. We came up with a system that allowed every service employee an equal opportunity to earn that valuable tip, on top of his/her base salary. As for the hotel doorman, his salary was increased by almost twenty percent and he now had an enlarged job-scope with greater responsibilities and more potential for growth.

By Martin Gabriel, Senior HR Consultant, HRmatters21

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