D&I COVID-19 RECORDING: CHOICE HOTELS' CORINNE ABRAMSON 7-7-20

In response to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak and its unprecedented impact to business and employers, i4cp holds a weekly series of standing calls to help Diversity & Inclusion leaders navigate this unpredictable time.  

The July 7th weekly i4cp Diversity & Inclusion Action Call welcomed special guest Corinne Abramson of Choice Hotels International. Abramson serves as the organization’s National Inclusion Director and Senior Director of Culture, Inclusion & Engagement. 

Call leader and i4cp Chief Diversity Officer Board Chair Jacqui Robertson opened her interview of Abramson by asking about Choice Hotels, one of the world’s largest franchisors. The organization’s properties include about 7,000 hotels across 40 countries worldwide, with about 6,000 of those located in the U.S. Choice Hotels International brands range from economy to upscale hotels and include such recognizable names as Clarion, Comfort, Quality Inn, Rodeway Inn, Ascend, and Cambria. 

While franchisees’ employees staff the various hotel properties, Choice Hotels’ corporate associates (employees) number about 1,400 people, primarily located near the company’s headquarters in Rockville, MD, and Phoenix, AZ. Abramson leads initiatives centered on culture, inclusion and engagement for those associates and is part of the talent and HR team at Choice Hotels. 

Key Ideas Shared Today: 

  1. Safety first. Abramson acknowledged that safety and cleanliness of hotel facilities are key considerations for travelers during the COVID-19 health crisis. Underscoring the value of external partnerships, she explained that Choice Hotels is participating in a hospitality industry consortium to develop best practices. At the same time, the organization is taking additional actions on its own to ensure that its brand standards are adhered to. Helping ensure execution of that goal, brand captains at each hotel property provide support and guidance to employees as they work to deliver top levels of safety and cleanliness while also adjusting to a changed work world and shifting consumer expectations.
  2. Resource groups continue the momentum of established inclusion practices. “We take inclusion seriously,” says Abramson, noting that the commitment was instituted by Choice Hotels’ founder and has been part of the organization’s DNA for eight decades. Eleven core employee resource groups (called Choice Resource Groups, or CRGs) support themes of culture, talent, and business impact. Group chairs work together to coordinate and perpetuate best practices.

    At the onset of the pandemic, Abramson says, those group leaders collaborated on ways to engage members virtually, and demonstrated agility and flexibility in crafting strategies to offer support to employees who were alone, had well-being issues, were challenged with children at home, or had other needs. Group leaders looked at how to leverage and adapt programs and practices already in place to better support those with particular needs while also considering the broader organization as well.

  3. Support strategies prove popular. A coffee klatch that connects people across the organization, an Executive Story Hour to help working parents provide diversions and entertainment for their kids, and mental well-being programs that include breathing breaks and meditation and yoga sessions, proved popular interventions that enhanced relationships company-wide (and beyond to employees’ families) while also providing much-needed support.

    “Our Working Parents group actually stood itself up during this time because they saw the needs of those employees grow so quickly,” Abramson says, adding that the new group became the first to sponsor a virtual event. In addition, it has brought together parents of same-aged children to share their own best practices as a means of peer interaction and support.

    Choice Hotels’ Young Professionals group sent out a note on day one of the shift to virtual work, communicating about best practices to combat loneliness and stay engaged, recommending resources, offering positive quotes, and more. “They have put out one of those newsletters every day since March 13th,” Abramson reports. Such responses to the health crisis have been a strength for the organization, she adds.

  4. Flexibility and compassion are watchwords. When considering the unique needs of working parents, HR encouraged Choice Hotels leaders from the outset to recognize that resources formerly in place to help those parents had suddenly fallen away. Schools and daycare facilities closed, nannies and childcare personnel were unavailable, and even grandparents were not accessible as care providers.

    Says Abramson, “We were learning how to navigate this pandemic. We weren’t necessarily looking for balance, but just trying to find a flow – allowing people to be creative. We encouraged associates to talk with their managers and communicate their situations with an eye toward working more flexibly. People were able to give themselves grace and express their needs, then work with their leaders to create solutions.”

  5. About those Executive Story Hours... Abramson and a colleague host the Executive Story Hours which children of employees attend with their family member. The kids are greeted by name at each session. Kicked off by the Chief HR Officer, participation has included readings by the leader of upscale brands, the Chief Legal Counsel, Chief Financial Officer, a Board member, the chairman’s wife, and others.

Abramson says the participating executives and other readers really enjoy their roles and each puts his or her own signature on the experience. “They read with drama and alliteration. Our CHRO chose a story about his personal family heritage to share, and we’ve had some moments of real emotion.” 

Also on today’s Action Call: 

  • Questions about the support provided for leaders of ERGs/BRGs to ensure they are not overburdened by the demands of leadership found that teamwork and support from HR and others at Choice Hotels helps groups carry out strategies to meet members’ needs without placing undue pressure on leaders.
  • Mental health support for Choice Hotels employees includes an EAP program, and the number of available counseling sessions has been increased to address added needs driven by the pandemic. Expanded marketing of counseling availability was done through the CRGs’ SharePoint sites (each group has its own dedicated site) to enhance communication and awareness.
  • Choice Hotels also instituted well-being days which afford time off for employees in need of a break to regenerate. Requests are handled by employees’ managers.
  • A poll during the Action Call asked about organizations’ responses to resurgence of COVID-19 cases and found 46% of respondents reporting that government dictates directed their actions, while 39% said they were slowing return-to-workplace plans, and 20% were increasing their COVID-19 countermeasures.
  • Recent i4cp survey results to a question about companies’ methods of ensuring greater diversity in succession planning (in light of social unrest related to racial inequities) noted top strategies of reviewing job requirements and qualifications for bias and including development of diverse talent in managers’ performance expectations. Considering ERG/BRG leadership as a factor in succession selection was called out as a next practice of high-performance organizations.

In addition to this recording, please see these resources: