By Richard G. Hudak
The recent episode involving Dominique Strauss-Kahn's alleged rape of a housekeeper has rekindled discussion on what the hospitality industry should do to better protect housekeeping and room service employees from on-the-job harassment. (ONLINE EXCLUSIVE)
The recent episode involving Dominique Strauss-Kahn in an alleged incident with a housekeeper at the Sofitel hotel in Manhattan has rekindled discussion regarding what the hospitality industry should do to better protect housekeeping and room service employees from on-the-job harassment or worse.
This is not the first time that the issue has come to the fore. A series of brutal attacks on housekeepers across the nation occurred in the mid-1990s, leading the American Hotel Lodging Association (AHLA) to call for higher levels of security to protect hotel employees.
At that time, research indicated that hotel security was being breached by criminals who dressed and acted like legitimate guests, allowing them to get past the front desk and access hotel elevators or stairwells without arousing suspicion. They walked guest floors looking for criminal opportunities, such as guest room doors left open while rooms were being cleaned.
While the housekeepers were cleaning showers and tubs, these criminals could enter unseen and make off with jewelry, purses, expensive clothing, and laptops. If the housekeeper saw them, they took advantage of the fact that staff were often foreign-born, with limited English language skills, and easily intimidated by someone they took to be a paying guest. The criminals aggressively confronted housekeepers, ordering them to leave so that they “could have privacy.”
In the worst-case scenarios, the housekeeper was trapped inside the room and victimized. During one year, eight housekeepers across the nation were assaulted, raped, or killed. The media, public, and hotel management demanded action.
The AHLA knew that higher levels of security were needed to protect hotel employees. But determining which best practices might make sense wasn’t easy. For example, training housekeepers to request that the person display and use the room cardkey was rarely effective. The perpetrator would verbally abuse the housekeeper until she left without verifying the person’s legitimate guest status.
The AHLA turned to its Security/Loss Prevention Committee, which is composed of hotel security directors, for answers. Several security options were discussed. Two were widely adopted.
First was the 60-second housekeeper security quick-check training. Under this program, staff were instructed to ensure that after a guest had officially checked out, the room was indeed vacant and safe to enter for servicing. Housekeepers were trained to confirm that all security equipment—locks, privacy latches, optical viewers, interconnecting room deadbolts, and especially the telephones—functioned normally.
Second was the closed-door housekeeping policy. Under this policy, housekeeping departments initiated new procedures directing staff to service guest rooms with the doors closed, rather than propped open as had been the practice in the past.
While the intent was to help service staff, there was initially strong opposition from the hotel workers unions, which argued against the closed-door policy in particular on several grounds.
They said that if the guest reported a personal item missing, the housekeepers would immediately be suspected of the loss because they were working behind closed doors out of sight of their supervisor. Housekeeping supervisors commented that they would not be able to properly supervise housekeepers by walking in on them unexpectedly to determine if they were providing adequate service or engaged in unauthorized behavior.
In addition, it was said that the housekeeper would be in increased jeopardy working behind closed doors if the guest were there or if the guest suddenly returned to the room. Moreover, housekeepers would not be able to monitor the cleaning carts or supplies on them to safeguard against theft but would be held accountable for “shrinkage.” Finally, it would take longer to clean the room due to the fact that the housekeeper would be continually opening the door to access the housekeeping cart to retrieve supplies.
During this period, major hotel chains installed expensive electronic lock systems on guest-room doors operated by magnetic-strip access cards that solved the metal key control issues that had previously plagued the lodging industry and had resulted in significant losses and liability issues. The electronic locks enabled hotel security to “interrogate” a lock, which means to pull up a record of who had entered at any time. Thus, if a guest reported a loss, the interrogation could identify the cardkey used to enter the room, along with the time and date of the entry. The advent of electronic locks was, and still is, a major factor in minimizing theft and rebutting fraudulent claims.
The introduction of these types of locks changed the dynamics of hotel security and reinforced the need for closed doors, even during housekeeping. In initial meetings following the hotel management decision to introduce the closed-door policy, hotel security directors made this point to directors of housekeeping. They noted that by blocking guest room doors open, the interrogation feature of the new locking systems was being nullified.
Security directors explained that by documenting what access card opened the guest room door, and the exact time the door was opened, most claims of stolen property and suspicions of “theft by housekeeper” could be refuted. When guests who made accusations were given the printout showing whose cardkey had unlocked the door, they frequently withdrew their claims of stolen property and would refuse to make official police reports alleging theft.
Housekeeping managers and supervisors were further told that catching housekeepers by walking in was counterproductive, and that interrogation of locks with the new closed door procedure actually improved productivity.
Hotel security also noted that under the new closed-door policy, housekeepers should never be in a guest room when the guest remained inside. Moreover, housekeepers working under the closed-door policy should not respond to requests to open the door. They should require both guests and other employees to access the room using their assigned keycards, creating an audit trail, and ensuring that the person had the authority to enter the room.
The only time that the housekeeper should continue to service the room with the guest present was if another hotel employee was present. However, it was never appropriate for the guest door to be closed when two hotel employees were inside the guest room providing service.
Signs were provided to housekeeping that read: “Hotel staff is currently servicing this room. Doors are closed for better protection. Guests are requested to use keycards for entry.” Housekeepers were also trained to report any aggressive behavior to their supervisor or to hotel security.
In addition, time and motion studies were conducted documenting that housekeepers, following training, could manage cleaning supplies adequately under the closed door policy with minimum inconvenience. Housekeeping carts were redesigned to reduce the opportunity for casual losses when they were unattended.
Gradually, through perseverance and persuasion, hotel security directors convinced most directors of housekeeping that the new housekeeping security policy was in their best interests and was required to protect their associates from harm. Over the years, the closed-door housekeeping policy and related procedures have reduced assaults on housekeeping employees and have helped to minimize thefts from hotel guest rooms.
That was then. Fast forward to today and one finds that the closed-door policy is not as widely followed as it needs to be. Additionally, it cannot solve all the problems, especially if the problem is not an interloper but a guest who had the authority to be in the room.
While the alleged Dominique Strauss-Kahn incident in Manhattan never went to a criminal trial, the case spotlights the risks housekeepers face. To address them, a legislative proposal referred to as the “Sexual Abuse Bill” (S.B. 5606) has been introduced in the New York State Assembly. It would require hotel and motel owners to provide sexual harassment training to employees and to develop programs to facilitate reporting of harassment. Hotel owners would be required to provide a “know your rights” brochure to all employees detailing state and federal laws on sexual harassment. The bill would make it illegal to retaliate against employees who report sexual harassment.
Directors of corporate security for the major hotel organizations who were contacted for this article expressed skepticism regarding the effectiveness of such a statute should it pass.
Corporate security directors say that they are evaluating several other security options. However, each has its pros and cons.
For example, they are exploring the benefits of equipping housekeepers with security pendants, or panic buttons, which may be used to alert hotel security of an emergency. But implementation of such a policy would not be easy. Challenges include ensuring that all pendants were properly assigned and returned after each shift, that the pendant signal could be received throughout the hotel, that the pendant battery was fully charged and functional for each shift, that there would be adequate security response available should the pendant be activated, and that there would be a fair and cost-effective policy for replacing lost pendants.
Another policy being considered is assigning small two-way radios to housekeepers servicing remote floors or rooms. The purchase of radios can result in significant expense, however. Security directors I spoke with noted that batteries for the radios must be recharged or replaced. Also, radios must be kept at hand if they are to be useful in an emergency, and that raises questions about where the radios could be located when the housekeeper was making a bed or cleaning the bathroom. As with the panic buttons, there is also the issue of communications being able to get through; it would have to be possible for radio signals to be received throughout the hotel.
A third policy under consideration is that of teaming male and female housekeepers to service rooms. But that creates its own set of risks and doubles the cost of housecleaning. To minimize the risk, a male and female housekeeping team would be told not to work behind closed doors in a guest room. But the cost issue would not be so easy to overcome. And there would also be personality issues requiring constant management.
A fourth option under discussion is to train staff in self-defense tactics. But security directors note that not all housekeepers would be willing or able to engage in self-defense tactics. Also, any such program would require considerable up-front and ongoing training to achieve and maintain proficiency. And there would likely be an increased potential liability for the hotel if this policy resulted in injury to the housekeeper either in training or execution.
A fifth policy being considered is to change the uniform female housekeepers must wear, requiring that they be attired in slacks instead of dresses. But security directors note that a female housekeeper wearing slacks may be in as much jeopardy as one in a dress.
A sixth policy under consideration is to make it mandatory to report aggressive guests and inappropriate behavior. However, security directors note that what may be considered aggressive or inappropriate by one person may not be a problem for another; thus, staff should be empowered to report such behavior rather than being told that it is mandatory.
Hotels are also considering policies that clearly state that guests who exhibit inappropriate behavior will be evicted. But security directors note that eviction is a serious response that may result in a lawsuit. Thus, this policy would have to be carefully implemented to ensure that eviction would be initiated for only the most serious of situations.
Whether any of these options will be widely adopted is not yet clear. With or without additional measures, however, hospitality operations should at least implement the already proven closed-door policy. While it may not deter a determined attacker who mirrors the alleged circumstances in the Strauss-Kahn incident, a closed-door housekeeping policy is still the best way to protect hotel staff servicing guest rooms against most threats and to safeguard guest property.
Unfortunately, it is not implemented as consistently as it should be. To cite just one example, during a recent business trip, I was staying at a medium-sized hotel in a [mid-western] Midwestern city and observed a foreign housekeeper servicing a nearby room with the door blocked open. A laptop was left unprotected, work documents spread out on the desk, and jewelry on the dresser. The housekeeper was in the bathroom cleaning the tub with the water running. Not only was she unable to control access to the room, but she was also unable to protect herself from harm.
Richard G. Hudak is the managing partner at Resort Security Consulting, Inc., in Delray Beach, Florida. A former FBI Agent, Hudak has worked in the hospitality industry for 20 years. He is a member of ASIS International.