Empathy: The Next Big Thing

Three Hyatt hotels in Boston recently asked their 98 housekeepers to train workers from Hospitality Staffing Services (HSS) to fill in for them on vacation. Then Hyatt laid off these 98 housekeepers—women who were not unionized, but whose jobs paid more than the minimum wage and included benefits. The company replaced them with the HSS trainees, who earn half the wages, receive no benefits, and, according to several complaints, are required to work overtime hours with no pay.

The outrage was instant, vigorous, and organized. The Governor of Massachusetts, the Boston City Council, the Boston Taxi Drivers Association, and other unions have called for a Hyatt boycott, and local protests have been large and loud.

Okay, you would expect this kind of outrage from unions and even from local politicians in a heavily Democratic city and state. But more striking has been the response from Hyatt customers.

The day after the Boston Globe story about Hyatt’s actions appeared, a new website sprung up asking, “If Hyatt doesn’t value quality room cleaning services above minimum wage, do you really want to stay there?” And in the couple of weeks that www.hyattboycott.com has been up, it has garnered, by my count, 1,142 comments and petition signatures—not just from the usual suspects, but from business travelers and travel planners—pledging to boycott unless and until the company rehires these 98 housekeepers.

Some called Hyatt to task for the questionable values they displayed in taking this action: “The Hyatt brand must realize: just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you SHOULD. But everyone can play at that game. I travel regularly to the US on business, with my firm giving me the choice of where to stay. So even though I CAN choose the Hyatt brand, why SHOULD I?”

Others questioned whether a company can effectively outsource customer service: “Until Hyatt realizes that service, not pinching pennies, is what makes for a top-end hotel chain, they will not get my business back. The idea of a staffing company sending $8/hr employees into my room at the Hyatt is scary. If there is an issue, will the hotel manager simply refer me to the staffing company?”

And of course the PR experts chastised the company for having failed to address the outcry in a more social-media-savvy fashion.

But this is not a cautionary tale about the need for damage control in a Web 2.0 world. It’s not even a story about companies having to make tough decisions in a difficult economic climate. No, it’s an illustration of the fact that one of the positive by-products of recession is empathy. Having witnessed the consequences of a small group of individuals profiting at the expense of others, American consumers and business travelers are not eager to do unto others what was done to them.

They are not children—workers and consumers alike recognize that companies need to stay profitable, and have honest, productive ideas for how to help them do it. But the crucial first step is for Hyatt and every other company hard hit in this economy to take a more expansive view of who their stakeholders are.