Editor's Note: This article by Paul Ruby gracefully addresses how a hotel general manager overcomes the daily challenge of working with Parkinson's disease.
I remember as a teenager in the 1970’s watching the television show Fantasy Island and thinking how anyone could not be happy working or vacationing in such a wonderful paradise. Each episode would begin with the owner, Mr. Roarke, prepping his staff for their guest’s arrival, while the small sea plane was landing at the tropical resort. Mr. Roarke would graciously state “Smiles everyone. Smiles!” The beaming faces of the diminutive Tattoo and the other staff members was clearly an integral part of what was portrayed as the ultimate service experience.
Not only does a welcoming smile by a doorman make a positive first impression on a guest, smiles seem to be contagious and can be passed on from one person to another. These infectious smiles have the power to change our mood for the better and conversely the absence of a smile can potentially compromise our attitude and experience. A smile from a manager to an employee can mean a job well done or can signal thanks from a guest to an employee. We teach our employees to leave their personal problems at home and that they are on stage when at work.
Hopefully we are just not “acting” as if we are happy to be servicing our guests, but honestly have our hearts into providing that excellent service. This requires attentiveness and typically a smile. Whether you are a hospitality professional, or communicating on any level, it’s not only what you say, but how you say it. This includes appropriate intonation as well as non-verbal communication such as eye contact, body posture and facial expressions.
What if a smile is missing from a manager’s arsenal of customer service traits? Does the absence of a smile indicate dissatisfaction with an employee’s performance or mean a manager is not happy to see a long time guest? What kind of message does it send to a guest when they are greeted by a manager who says all the right things but has absolutely no emotion in his or her face? It might mean that the manager is in the wrong business, and that natural selection needs to run its course. Or, it’s possible that the manager has a medical condition such as Parkinson’s disease.
I was diagnosed with this degenerative neurological disease in 2006 and I experience many of the typical symptoms such as stiffness, slow movements and a softer voice. People who haven’t seen me in a while often ask if I am still working.
Although I am able to continue working effectively, I feel challenged by my inability to show emotion with facial expressions. Smiling was a communication tool I relied on every day of my career until I literally just couldn’t make the edges of my mouth raise. The symptom is called a masked face and I am certain this symptom has caused more than one employee to wonder or say, “What does it take to make that guy happy?”
Even prior to diagnosis, my philosophy has always been not to worry about what I can’t do and focus on the things I can do. Although there is nothing better than a warm smile to let the room attendant know she is doing a great job sometimes for me it literally takes giving someone a pat on the back. Although I may be smiling on the inside sometimes I have to completely rely on what I am saying rather than how I am saying it to communicate to staff members and guests. Sometimes it requires showing thanks for a job well done in writing. I have also learned to smile with my eyes.
Although I no longer feel frustration or guilt about not being able to visibly show facial emotion, I am extremely conscientious of how employees and guests perceive me and my reactions. To some extent I am forced to rely on people’s instincts that they understand I am happy to be at their service or pleased with the service they are providing our guests. Being sincere, approachable, following through with what you say you’re going to do, setting a good example, and smiling on the inside are all actions we can take to positively impact a guest’s stay or an employee’s work satisfaction as much or more than a happy face. Sometimes a smile is all it takes to show how you feel and sometimes for one reason or another you just need to think outside of the box to figure out a new way to communicate your satisfaction or to make a guest feel welcome.
I have considered disclosing my masked face situation as part of each new hires orientation to avoid employees confusing my lack of facial expression with being uncaring or angry. However, I have learned that true hospitality comes from within and transcends even a missing smile. Employees and guests can usually sense sincerity and happiness and it shouldn’t have to be explained. Never underestimate the power of a simple smile and the positive impact it can make on those around you.
If I were taking Mr. Roarke’s place I might have to change his catch phrase to “Smiles everyone! Or at least be smiling on the inside."
Contributed by Paul Ruby, vice president of operations for Shodeen Hospitality and general manager of the Herrington Inn & Spa in Geneva, Illinois. To learn more about how he gives back to his community, visit paulrubyfoundation.org.