October 14, 2021

HR Training in the Time of COVID: Commit to a Meaningful Cultural Change

HFTP 2021 Events
Written by John Reyna, J.D., LL.M. | HFTP 2021 Annual Convention Guest Blogger — Contributor

If you happened to read my pre-event blog post, then you already know about my excitement to attend Phillip R. Maltin’s presentation about “Solving the Mystery of Employment Law: Techniques for Controlling the Workforce and Staying out of Court.” Well, it did not disappoint. I walked out of Mr. Maltin’s presentation with a better understanding of employment law, and I’m certain that I was not the only one.

During his presentation, Mr. Maltin stated that management should use team meetings to discuss subjects that protect employees and the business. I 100% agree. However, after two decades of working in hospitality and now as serving as a professor of Hospitality Management, I feel that this topic is too often approached from a one-sided mindset, i.e., protecting the business.

Because of the potential liability arising from employment-based lawsuits, it is predictable that most training in this area focuses on protecting the business. Recent lawsuits have put forth a damage model that rightfully scares ownership and executives. In fact, one of the first slides in Mr. Maltin’s presentation reflected the $125 million jury award for disability discrimination. Verdicts like this should be an underlying reason why you, as a leader in your club or hotel, want to train your staff about employment law. But I believe there is a more important reason—protecting staff.

Currently, the hospitality industry is struggling to find workers and one of the main reasons that I hear from hospitality workers is that they don’t trust employers to provide a safe workplace environment. Sadly, our industry has a longstanding problem with harassment and discrimination.

In my two decades of working in hospitality, I can count on one hand the number of times that I was provided with information about harassment (including sexual harassment) and discrimination. And those few instances, which occurred once I was in management, were geared towards reducing liability rather than creating a safer working environment. These trainings felt more like leadership checking a box rather than committing to a meaningful cultural change. This approach must change.

I believe that the hospitality businesses that exit the pandemic the strongest will be run by owners and managers who understand that their employees’ welfare and safety is paramount to the operation’s success. In short, if you take care of your staff, they will take care of your customers (or members). And how better to show your staff that you care about their wellbeing and safety than embracing employment law as a mechanism to protect your staff.

With all of that in mind, let’s get back to Mr. Maltin’s presentation. Most of the dialogue from the audience dealt with the legalese and reduction of liability. I get it. That’s the sexy part. But the problem with focusing on those topics is that you will likely miss the other gems that Mr. Maltin scattered throughout his presentation.

For example, one of my favorite slides was titled, “Consider Your Behavior.” Mr. Maltin talked about a study that investigated why surgeons were sued. The slide reflected that surgeons’ dominance and deep, loud speech were often the underlying causes of the lawsuits. One of the reasons why dominance and speech resulted in a lawsuit is because that dominance and speech “may communicate lack of empathy and understanding.”


This one bullet point hit home for me because my restaurant and bar colleagues continually tell me that owners and managers’ lack of empathy is one of the biggest reasons why they may not return to the industry. This is such a problem that Wine Enthusiast ran an article in August titled, “Why Aren’t Bar Pros Returning to Work? A Lack of Empathy.” If you haven’t considered empathy in your employee training, I highly suggest that you start now.

Another wonderful slide in Mr. Maltin’s presentation was a summary of Google’s Project Oxygen and the resulting “Eight Habits of Highly Effective Google Managers.” I won’t type out all eight habits, but here are a few of my favorites:

  • They create an inclusive team environment;

  • They communicate well; and

  • They demonstrate collaborative skills.

Embedded in each of these habits is the skill of active listening. Managers who actively listen to their staff, whether it be about work or nonwork-related topics, create a safe environment where employees feel heard.

Now, I’ve chosen to focus on two of Mr. Maltin’s slides that did not directly deal with employment law, but there lies the brilliance of Mr. Maltin’s presentation. He began by discussing, among other things, disability discrimination, the ABC test and common law test for determining employee/independent contractor status, and what to do before HR become involved (S3: speed, separation, and security) because that is what we all expect in this type of presentation. However, he finished with the two slides discussed above because those slides reflect ways to make a meaningful cultural change, which will result in reduced exposure to liability.

While I encourage you to share Mr. Maltin’s presentation with your teams, I implore you not to only focus on the legalese and liability. Rather, give equal weight to ideas that will produce a meaningful cultural change. Show your employees that you are building a culture based on empathy and active listening. The result will be a safer workplace where high performing employees want to work.

John Reyna, J.D., LL.M. is managing attorney at Texas Hospitality and Non-profit Law Center, PLLC. He is currently an adjunct professor at the University of North Texas at Dallas School of Business, teaching restaurant management and beverage management. He is also the official event guest blogger for the HFTP 2021 Annual Convention, taking place September 27-30 at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, Texas. Check back on HFTP News/HITEC Bytes for one final blog post from John later this month.

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