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Blocking the Brain Drain

James Busser and Wen Chang provide resorts with the insights they need to keep star employees.

Research  |  Jan 19, 2017  |  By Angela Ramsey

Harrah Hotel College professor James Busser and doctoral student Wen Chang help hospitality brands with employee retention. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Photo Services)

The hotel-resort industry has long prided itself on its hiring prowess, handpicking and grooming newly hired managers for careers intended to span years, if not decades. So, why are so many entry-level managers resigning just weeks after completing training?

One major hospitality brand recently turned to Harrah Hotel College professor James Busser and his doctoral student Wen Chang for answers. Could deficiencies in its management-training program be to blame?

“They wanted us to take a critical look at the program to find areas for improvement,” Busser says. The company’s name, he adds, must be kept confidential due to a nondisclosure agreement.

As part of their study, Busser and Chang surveyed dozens of former management-program trainees through several cycles of the training. The two also worked with the company’s team of human resources managers to better understand the types of trainees it attracted. They soon learned that only a select few students, identified as stellar performers, were recruited into the program directly out of college. “It’s a very competitive program,” says Chang. “This organization accepts only a small percentage of students.”

Once on board, trainees were assigned a mentor from the company’s corporate headquarters, a close advisor whose role involved helping their charges navigate the year-long training process. Training complete, the new managers were assigned to one of the company’s hotel or resort properties to begin their careers. Many chose to resign instead.

“Despite a significant investment of money and time in these trainees,” Busser says, “the company couldn’t keep them following completion of the program.”

The reason, the surveys revealed, was pretty straightforward: Employees were leaving because their expectations were not being met. But why? Busser and Chang suspected the mentor-trainee relationship might be playing a role.  

“The mentor portion of the program was highly controlled at the corporate level,” Busser says. “But it became clear that some unevenness in the training program was occurring at the property level, resulting in situations that were inconsistent with employee expectations.”

“We wanted to sort this out,” adds Chang. Together the researchers dove deep into the survey data to explore the role mentors played in two specific areas: career development (relating to workplace skills and knowledge) and psychosocial support (the process of integrating employees into corporate culture).

Busser and Chang discovered that the mentors were doing a better job reinforcing the psychosocial aspects of the program than focusing on career development. The two then met with the brand’s human resources managers to recommend more training — this time for the mentors. Mentors, they said, were focusing too heavily on developing personal relationships. Instead, they needed to place more emphasis on developing trainees’ knowledge and skills. Focusing on the career-development part, Busser and Chang reasoned, would help trainees develop more realistic expectations about the day-to-day reality of their new careers.

“There needs to be consistency among mentors about how they communicate organizational culture and expectations about progression within the company,” Busser says.

Interestingly, trainees who resigned after completing the program didn’t appear to depart with hard feelings. Most, in fact, continued to hold a favorable view of the organization.

“The incredible strength of the program is that the employees who were leaving still had very positive feelings about promoting the brand to others,” Chang says. She and Busser also discovered that, while employed, the trainees were willing to go above and beyond their duties, which was of huge benefit to the company.

Busser and Chang’s study has been submitted to the International Journal of Hospitality Management for publication. It is currently in its second round of peer reviews.

Chang, meanwhile, has had no second thoughts about her own training. She recently completed her doctorate and will join the faculty of Iowa State University this fall.

“Ph.D. students here at the Harrah College really get to take advantage of the partnerships that have been formed between the college and the industry over the years,” Chang says. “These kinds of research opportunities only happen at UNLV. Doing research projects like this, you can see how your work has an impact.”

Busser echoes the sentiment. “The company was so energized by the findings and receptive to moving forward with improvements,” he says. “It has been a tremendous experience for all of us involved.”