The Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual assault case brought the issue of employee safety at hotels into the spotlight. The case against the former head of the International Monetary Fund, who was accused by a New York City hotel room attendant of sexual assault, has been full of twists and turns. Regardless of the outcome, the case this summer had hoteliers contemplating security measures to protect workers. Anthony C. Roman, founder and CEO of Roman & Associates, and a veteran in hotel security, recently discussed hotel worker safety and proper procedures for dealing with employee security issues with Lodging.
Lodging | The Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual assault case brought the issue of employee security into the spotlight, but certainly it’s not a new problem. But now that it has become high profile, do you think hotels will be forced to put money and resources into the issue?
Anthony Roman | I haven’t seen any reaction across the board. There are some individual brands that may be reacting that way, but I have not seen that. They are aware of this issue, now the public has become aware of this issue. Protecting a brand is compatible with protecting your employees and making it a safe place for your guest.
Lodging | Can you put this issue into perspective? Is this problem better, worse, or the same as it has been in the past?
Roman | The issue has come to light because of the media—there’s no question about that. The problem has always existed. If we are speaking in a linear fashion about sexual assault against maids or other employees, the problem is not as acute in the United States as it is in other venues, but it does exist, and it is consistent. The problem exists because of a number of administrative and cultural issues.
One: The group that consists of maids is generally less educated than the guests staying at the hotel and the admin of the hotel.
Two: You have a number of immigrants, and the variety of cultures they come from tend to not question authority. The maid can never be right. It’s always the guest that’s right, and they fear losing their job. With regard to the major brands, I believe they are making every effort to comply with federal law with regard to immigration status, so I don’t believe that’s a major issue at this point in time.
As you branch out into the brands where the home office brands have less or no operational control, there may be in the franchise brands, there may some of that.
Lodging | Can you name a hotel that’s doing a great job protecting their employees, and what is it that they are doing?
Roman | Most major brands respond properly in the United States. The problem is you can’t look at this separate from society. If you look at the general population, one out of 15 sexual assaults results in time in prison. Only 50-60 percent of assaults are reported in the general population.
Lodging | What about the two hotels involved in most recent alleged sexual assaults? In your opinion, how did those hotels handle their individual situations?
Roman | In the case of the Sofitel, they handled the matter appropriately. Whatever administrative procedures they have, the maid reported it, the manager reported it to the GM of the hotel, the police were called, and the scene was secured. All facets were more or less administered. You had a very powerful man who may have been the next president of France. You are at the height of power, and the Sofitel caters to individuals with that power and they still properly handled that situation. That’s a model example of how well it can be handled.
The administrative protocols that were so eloquently followed by the Sofitel were not properly followed [at the other]. Generally the less experienced people work in the evening. The problem was not responded to in the appropriate way. The housekeeper should have been interviewed by security. A higher level of manager should have been notified.
According to newspaper accounts, the evening manager referred the housekeeper to the daytime housekeeping manager, which would be bouncing it back down the executive chain rather than up the chain. The hotel properly reacted once the executive management was involved and the police were notified. One manager did not follow procedures.
Lodging | If an employee claims a guest sexually assaulted him or her, what is the ideal way for a hotel to handle it?
Roman | The proper procedures would be to overlay training for the employed staff on proper reporting procedures and training for management on proper receipt following the report. Then the maids and employees know this will be received properly and they will be paid attention to, and there will not be any adverse action.
Then you overlay technology. There should be security cameras on every floor with four cameras in the ceiling so that the entrances and exits can be visualized. If you embed facial recognition software, it would recognize if a known terrorist were one of your guests. You want to have layers of defenses because there is no one silver bullet.
You also want to have a key card system. There are a variety of levels of information available. You should have the maximum available data: time of entry, name of individual entering, etc.
In addition to that, housekeepers should work in tandem—there should be more than one maid per floor in alternating rooms so they are always near each other. The doors should remain open, and the door should not block the cart because it will stop a maid from getting out, and the assault can continue. A sexual assault is a violent act that takes under a minute from start to conclusion.
Lodging | We’ve heard a lot recently about hotels requiring panic buttons for employees. Do you give that solution credence?
Roman | It’s really something to satisfy the media outcry. There are a wide variety of panic buttons, most of which are overt. If they have just a GPS it will not work. Also, it may escalate the attack. Sexual assault is an attack of violent passion done to make a woman submit. You may have hitting, slapping, and if a perpetrator sees a panic device, it may escalate the assault to serious physical injury or death. So the panic button doesn’t offer a lot in terms of protection. Panic buttons have their place, but not here.
We have developed a global executive anti-kidnapping device called Web-Trac. It’s not a device at all. It’s a signal that can be embedded in many electronic devices that works indoors and outdoors. It’s an intelligence device that actively tells us if there is a problem. So if a maid is in a room, the itineraries show where she is supposed to be—if she is kidnapped or taken into a stairwell, the alarm would automatically be triggered. If she is attacked inside the room, it will automatically notify security.
She would have to activate it, but the activation is subtle. It will be in a pocket. It doesn’t have to be pulled out.
Lodging | Do you think these technologies are practical for hotels to install?
Roman | The revenues per available room were down for several years during the course of the recession. Even premium brands were putting less flowers in the lobby and cutting costs everywhere they knew how. So it’s not practical to assume they could install new technologies.
So one could turn to more administrative measures and use the resources you have more effectively. Increase the rounds of maid supervisors. Require a supervisor to continually rotate through the floors. Layer over that very frequent security patrols during the maids’ workday. If a maid felt uncomfortable by instinct or certain signs and symptoms or if the guest directly propositioned her, she could request an escort. Training, policies and procedures, and increased security patrols can mitigate disasters.