Contributor: Ali Ahmed
Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).
David Rodriguez, is the Executive Vice President of Global Human Resources for Marriott International. He has a doctorate in Industrial/Organizational from NYU and has held various HR positions at Citi and Avon before joining Marriott. Rodriguez is on the Board of Directors for the Human Resources Policy Association and a member of the Personnel Roundtable, Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, American Psychological Association, and Board of Governors for the American Health Policy Institute. He spoke to Stew Friedman about providing and maintaining employee well-being at Marriott.
Excerpts of their conversation below:
Stew Friedman: So, David for those few people who are listening who may not know, what does Marriott do?
David Rodriguez: We’re one of the world’s leading lodging companies with over 4,300 properties in 81 countries and territories under 19 brands – everything from our namesake Marriott and JW Marriott hotels to luxury brands, like Ritz Carlton. The company was founded by the parents of our current executive chairman, Bill Marriott in 1927.
SF: Your firm has consistently been ranked one of the best places to work. What is the secret to your success to attract and retain the top talent in your field year after year?
DR: If you examine company documents and videos, you find a phrase that appears again and again: If you take care of the associates, they will take care of the customers, and the customers will come back again and again, and the business will take care of itself. If you talk to just about anybody in our business, and ask them what separates us from our competitors, they probably will say it’s our company culture, and our core values. We are a very people-centric business. In essence, we believe the foundation of our business models never strayed from its early roots. And that’s a focus on employee well-being.
SF: So, that’s been there from the start?
DR: It has. It’s grown over time, as we’ve grown. We started as a small little root beer stand, then the restaurant business here in D.C., then we grew in the U.S., and then we got into the hotel business in the late 1950’s. That’s become the core of who we are today. This focus on well-being has never strayed from its roots, but it’s evolved. It has three components. First, we believe that people have to feel good about themselves. We provide resources to support physical, mental, and emotional health.
SF: What exactly do you provide and how do employees use it to help them feel good about their physical and emotional health?
DR: We have a nationally recognized wellness program with a number of resources and activities directly related to helping people maintain good health. As you and I know, there is a big expenditure in this country in helping people who are sick get well. There needs to be more focus on prevention. Our wellness program, in part, helps people by giving them the knowledge, tools, and resources to maintain a good health. We also have what we call our associate resource line. Let’s say you have elderly parents, then you need to become better educated and know what options there might be and how to consider, say elder care. Whatever issues people face at different stages in their life, we know that to the extent we can help them to face those issues, it has a great impact on their general well-being. We also provide courses and resources for people to become better financial stewards. A big focus, particularly with our hourly employees, is on providing them with career development guidance and programs. Let’s face it, the path to a more secure retirement and to financial security – I think the minimum wage debate in the country is a very important debate –- is for the private sector, for companies, to look at their practices and make sure they’re doing all they can to help people develop the skills that make them recession-proof and give them the opportunity to get higher paying jobs. It all falls under this umbrella: people have to feel good about themselves in order to participate fully and productively.
SF: What’s the signal differentiator of your programs?
DR: It’s multi-faceted. I think it’s been recognized for a couple of different reasons. One, it’s global. We have worked to make it relevant locally in many different cultures and companies.
SF: So, you’ve had to adjust your policies to fit the local culture?
DR: Yes. Some cultures are smoking cultures, for instance. So, how do you introduce wellness and help people live healthier lives, while being sensitive to cultural messaging that is a bit at odds? The other thing that distinguishes our company is that we have literally hundreds of what we call “wellness champions” across the company. These are associates who, in many cases, have been helped and want to give back by becoming wellness champions and helping at our hotels and other locations to lead the effort and to get those sites to adopt healthier practices.
SF: Do they get extra compensation for that or is it seen as a boost for their career development prospects? What why would somebody sign up for being a wellness champion?
DR: They become passionate about it. It’s on company time so they are being compensated for it. But, they’re doing it because they’ve become passionate about it. And yes, these are great learning opportunities for many people. It can be one of the first opportunities to show leadership. So people get very excited about that, and there are some great stories that come out of it. I am a direct beneficiary of our wellness initiative. I was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic Leukemia just a year and a half ago. One of the reasons I am alive today is because of our wellness initiative. Through the initiative even someone like me, who is fairly well-educated, was able to learn a great deal about how to take better care of myself. I keep all of my own health records. If I ever go see a physician, I know a lot more than they do about my personal chemistry and so forth.
SF: And that’s something that you’ve learned through the program and company?
DR: Absolutely. And many people say this. So, what do you need to know to be able to manage your health and know what are signals that require you to take action? There are many stories of people who become inspired. a fellow, who I was talking to the other day lost 60 pounds. He got inspired by hearing some of the success stories in the wellness initiative. He essentially said, “They inspired me. I need to do this for myself and my family. ” But he also realized if he succeeded in this, he would also be in a position to inspire other people. That has sustained him throughout the process.
Let me move on because I mentioned three pillars. Secondly, I feel good about myself, but I have to feel good about the workplace. And a lot of that has to do with relationships in the workplace. Our belief is: if our associates don’t have to worry about whether or how they can fit in, they can, instead, use that energy to build relationships in the workplace, be creative, be productive, and that creates a virtuous cycle for everyone in the workplace. That’s part of our approach to global diversity and inclusion. It is about making sure that we not only feel good about ourselves, but also that we feel great about the relationships in the workplace. And the last pillar: people have to feel good about the company itself. That’s about the company’s mission in society, its purpose. What we do for a living is providing a home away from home for people who can’t be home. We help people who are on business travel. Or we provide great venues for family and friends to re-energize while on vacation, or for gatherings of people from across the world to share perspectives. People at Marriott feel very good about what we do in society, and feel very good about the company’s citizenship. When these three elements are in place, employees really engage with the company, the mission of the company. What we find is they also get very inspired to give back to the community.
SF: And that’s going to enhance your brand. If you’re employees are your ambassadors for why this is a great place to stay. As a person travelling or convening with friends or family, as you described, there’s no better advertisement.
DR: Let me tell you a great story. I was travelling outside the United States. I land at the airport and my colleagues say, “David there’s a housekeeper that wants to speak to you. Would you be willing to speak to her?” And I said, “Of course.” I was wondering what am I about to hear? What has gone wrong somewhere? What complaint? I get there and I meet this woman. She was a single mother with young children and she proceeded to tell me about a life of generations of poverty and domestic violence. And what she said to me was that Marriott to her, when she went inside the doors of our hotel, it was like walking into an oasis. She found dignity and respect that she could not find outside the workplace in a place that believed that she could grow as a person. So, she said to me – here’s the catch – she said, “David, because Marriott takes care of me and my family…” in essence because it broke that cycle of poverty and lack of self-respect, “I am going to make sure that all my co-workers feel like family. And that every customer that walks into that hotel feels like family.” Stew, how could you not be successful if you’re in the service industry?
SF: If you get everyone to feel that way? So, how do you get everyone to feel that way?
DR: It’s the goal and objective of the CEO and every one of his direct reports, including me. And it’s focused on employee well-being.
SF: So, that’s a measurable objective and everyone is held accountable?
DR: I’ll give you an example of the penetration of our “Take Care” well-being program. Our Executive Chairman and Chairman of the Board, Bill Marriott, and our President and CEO, Arne Sorenson, won’t rest until that becomes ingrained in every single one of the thousands of hotels that we manage. It starts with the philosophy of the three pillars I talked about. Underneath all those pillars are specific programs and actions that people are measured on.
SF: How are you doing this year? What’s your rating going to be on that metric?
DR: I don’t have a final metric for the year. Every year as we globalize the wellness program, what we look at is the adoption rate by hotels. Year after year we will exceed our goals for the number of hotels that have jumped on board and are actively, not just knowledgeable about it, but are self-sustaining in terms of the energy and activities they have in the wellness space.
SF: I know that a number of our listeners are thinking, “Well this sounds great for a big company, like Marriott. But how do we do it in our company? Or a company that’s not a service business, where you are really dependent on the attitude and passionate engagement of your employees at all levels who are directly customer facing?” What advice do you have for other businesses to help them to see the value in this investment in well-being that your company has been so successful in creating and benefiting from?
DR: Certainly the story I told you about – having an associate describe how integral her work experience has been and how committed she is – a lot of our employees describe our hotels as their hotels. Not the company’s hotels, but ‘their hotels’. It’s like they’re taking care of their homes. I think you achieve that by having senior management held accountable. They have to share the philosophy. And they have to be held accountable.
SF: That’s really making it a key priority that people are measured on?
DR: Yes, at the very top. And it can’t be a tactical thing. This company takes great pains making sure people understand our business model stands with employee-centricity. When you’re in the service experience, part of it is the hotel has to look beautiful and up-to-date and so on and so forth. But that experience is entirely dependent on our employees and the degree to which they are enthused about creating great experiences. So, people get it here and we make sure there is accountability.
SF: What’s the second key point you want to leave our audience with?
DR: The second key point is that it can’t just be at the top. It has to be from the grassroots itself. You need to give people the forum and the mechanisms where they internalize this, they think of the company as their company, and they’re invested in making it the best place it can possibly be
About The Author
Ali Ahmed is an undergraduate senior majoring in Biological Basis of Behavior and minoring in Cinema Studies.