3 Ways to De-escalate Cross-cultural Conflict with Guests and Employees

November 17, 2020 | 1947 Views

3 Ways to De-escalate Cross-cultural Conflict with Guests and Employees

Gerry Fernandez

President & Founder | Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance

Also see:

Gerry Fernandez’s 2020 On-demand Webinar, Managing Unconscious Bias: De-escalating Cross-cultural Conflict with Guests and Employees
Gerry Fernandez’s 2019 CHART Talks video, The Value of Unconscious Bias Training

The hospitality industry is wonderfully diverse. People who work in hospitality and their guests are from all backgrounds, ages, experiences, cultures, expressions, and abilities. Where differing viewpoints and subconscious biases intersect, occasional cross-cultural conflict is sure to arise between guests and employees, and among guests. The best way to prepare for dealing with incidents of cross-cultural conflict is to:

  1. develop your company’s cultural awareness, and identify potential areas of conflict
  2. plan appropriate responses and put clear policies in place
  3. practice de-escalation techniques at all levels of employee and manager training

1. Increase cultural understanding and identify potential areas of conflict.

Learn about the culture and customs of your regular clientele. What are their values and their pain points? What might influence their actions, and how are they often stereotyped or unfairly judged? For example, if your business is near a military base, learn about veterans and active duty servicepeople. If you serve an area with a large Latino population, learn about their cultural norms. It is your responsibility to educate yourself so you can be mindful of cultural cues and address your organization’s blind spots.

What are the incidents that are likely to happen in your business? Every business is certain to have unhappy guests from time to time. What complaints or situations can you anticipate and plan for? For example, how will you respond if a guest enters your business wearing clothing with offensive language on it? How will you respond if an argument breaks out between guests and affects the experience of other patrons? How will you respond if a customer makes a racist, sexist, or other inflammatory comment to an employee or another customer?

2. Develop clear policies and codes of conduct for both employees and guests.

It should go without saying that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and company policies regarding employee/guest and guest/guest interactions should reflect that. When you have well-thought-out company policies in place, it becomes very clear when someone has crossed the line, requiring swift intervention.

Don’t leave it up to the managers to figure out how to handle issues in the heat of the moment. Develop your standards for interaction and a clear customer code of conduct that you can refer to if an incident arises, and/or if you need to explain an action afterward in an incident report, or to a third party like upper management, law enforcement, or the media. For example, “The guest became physically aggressive with one of our employees, so we immediately asked her to leave, per our customer code of conduct.”

Having a policy that prevents guests from wearing obscene language on their clothing makes it very easy to tell a guest, “I’m sorry, but our policy prevents me from serving you right now. If you would like to come back without the obscene language, I would be more than happy to help you.” There is no question why the guest is being turned away, and what they need to do to be welcomed back. This policy is applied universally, and can be clearly understood and followed. You can view this as simply an extension of the widely accepted “no shirt, no shoes, no service” policy, which clearly defines a minimum standard for guest attire.

3. Practice de-escalation techniques to minimize the likelihood of conflict and violence.

If a conflict arises, remain calm in your tone, words, and body language as the first step of de-escalation. Make sure that your body language and words are consistent with each other and with the message you’re trying to convey. Respect the other person’s personal space while maintaining your own, and keep your hands visible. Engage in active listening and really try to understand what the person is saying and where their hurt or anger is coming from.

Try to keep your own emotions level, and reflect or paraphrase the person’s concern or complaint back to them – restate what they said and empathize with their position. This does NOT mean that you agree with their position, just that you understand why they might feel the way that they feel. Don’t be judgmental, validate “I understand why you might be upset,” without agreeing or claiming to know how they feel. Often, people simply want to be heard and acknowledged.

Avoid engaging in power struggles, raising your voice, or making threats or demands. It can sometimes be helpful to bring a second employee or manager into the conversation, but not as an intimidation tactic.

Give choices and set limits. For example, “I want to help you, but we don’t tolerate yelling or cursing here. If you can lower your voice and stop cursing, we can talk about how to resolve this. If you can’t do that, I’m afraid we’re going to have to end your dining experience.”

A certain degree of cross-cultural conflict may be inevitable with so many different experiences and viewpoints coming together in a shared space. But hospitality trainers can help businesses avoid and minimize many conflicts by helping their organizations to develop cultural awareness, identify areas of potential conflict ahead of time, create clear expectations and codes of conduct as well as appropriate responses to recurring issues, and advocating for de-escalation training for all levels of employees and managers. 

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