HR Is All About “Personal Relationships” and Avoiding “Entropy”
HR in hospitality has been nothing if not challenging over the last few years—and Greg Alberto has been in the middle of it.
Alberto is Director of Human Resources at The US Grant Hotel, a 112-year-old historic four-star property in San Diego. He has been in the hospitality business since emigrating to the United States 16 years ago from the Philippines, where he was a consultant. In San Diego, he worked his way up from a filing clerk at the Hotel Del Coronado across town to assistant manager there, before moving to The US Grant as head of training and then as the director of HR for what then was a staff of about 300. After a brief term with The Town and Country Resort and Convention Center as their HR Director, he eventually returned to The US Grant, now as part of Marriott International.
Then the pandemic struck, and, in March 2020, the hotel pared back significantly.
“We never closed down, because we were considered essential to host visitors on business,” he said. “But there were days when we had only one guest.”
The hotel had to keep a small staff working in several areas, including engineering and housekeeping. At first, it seemed it would be a temporary situation for a few weeks. When it became clear that the pandemic was a long-term issue and the staff reductions would be long term as well, he had to tell hundreds of employees there was no work for them.
It was, he said, a very difficult task.
“In 2020, the average tenure of people at The US Grant was around 8–9 years of service at this property alone,” he said. “They were not only connected to this hotel, they were connected to me personally, because I hired most of them.”
Things looked even bleaker in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. There were protests in downtown San Diego where the hotel’s windows were shattered and had to be boarded up. “We just didn’t know where everything was headed,” he said.
It was more than a year before California eased its pandemic regulations and The US Grant was able to reopen fully. But, like many other hotels, the biggest challenge fell again to HR: how to re-staff after a year and in a new employment environment created by the pandemic.
“In June, I called every one of my former employees and asked them to come back,” he said.
“About a third of them said they’d love to have their job back, but the rest said they had found something else because they needed to survive.”
It has been a tough hiring road since then, Alberto said, noting that the pool of candidates that existed before the pandemic “became a puddle, and then the puddle ran dry.” In part, that’s because employees have new expectations for work in the wake of the pandemic that don’t necessarily align with the traditional working style in hospitality. So, one of his key priorities is to change that to meet the diverse needs of prospective workers.
“I like to say we were all in the same storm but not all in the same boat,” he said. “Some people reassessed their priorities and their lives. In our industry, work-life balance has tended to be skewed toward work, but now we’re reassessing, too.”
Where schedules were once based on our business needs, that paradigm is changing. The hotel is exploring flexible work options that Alberto said it would never have considered before. The property is trying to accommodate the needs of “weekend warriors” who don’t want to be scheduled on weekdays, or single parents who want to work a few days a month for extra income for their family.
“We will have to change for them,” he said. “And there are those who are attracted to remote work, and we have started to consider that option where applicable. That was unheard of in prior years, but slowly, our minds have started to look at things from a different perspective.”
Alberto relishes that challenge, because it’s aligned with his chief reason for being in HR: wanting to make a difference in people’s lives.
“This career lets me do that, touch and be a guiding force in a person’s future,” he said. He also values the personal connection he has with the staff, one that can help deal with problems when they arise. “We are family—we figure things out. And that happens only when you seek to build a personal relationship—one employee at a time”.
“Every single one of my employees, there’s a nugget I know about them that helps me connect,” he said. “Sometimes it’s crazy busy like a whirlwind, and they just want to close the door and vent. At the end of day that’s what human resources are all about, the human side. Other places have taken the human connection out, but not us. That’s what keeps me in this industry, in this job, in this hotel.”
Alberto said the pandemic also had him reexamining his life, too, and as a result he developed a renewed fascination with gardening—something he has never considered before. He’s been planting trees and growing orchids, a hobby he had never pursued before the pandemic. The lessons he’s learned from gardening successes—and failures—have given him a different perspective that he’s applied to his working life.
“Science tells us there is a natural order in life. It’s called entropy—a gradual decline to disorder,” he said. “A tree’s leaves naturally go brown and fall; if you pick a fruit, it will eventually rot; flowers don’t always stay alive, they wilt and die. If you want to head off entropy, there has to be an intervention.”
The same is true in corporate life, he said.
“Our corporate culture, which I’d like to think is quite positive—will not always remain as positive and conducive as we want it to be by itself,” he said. “We have to consciously work at it—water it, fertilize it, care for it in order to thrive. Unless you have these active interventions, your culture isn’t going to stay in status quo.”