Producer’s note: Someone on Quora asked: Do hotel cleaning people sometimes steal items from the rooms of their guests? Here is one of the best answers that’s been pulled from the thread.
Rarely. You might be surprised, if you’ve never worked in a hotel.
Even the dumbest room attendant knows that whatever the temptation, if it happens, the guest will say something right away as soon as he or she notices the item missing, and there’s always a record of who cleaned which room. In most hotels – and in any well-run hotel – there’s just no way to do it and not get found out. And busted. Very quickly.
And any hotel owner or manager (who aren’t always necessarily smarter than the housekeepers) knows that if a problem develops, unless it’s addressed and dealt with immediately and conclusively, he or she is going to lose control of how to contain it. (For example, once a police car rolls up, which will happen if it’s an item of any serious value, there’s going to be an investigation, which means housekeepers being interviewed – on company time – by the cops.) So there is no incentive for a hotel owner or manager to cover up for (or even put up with) one or more sticky-fingered housekeepers, and at least some disincentive for even the grungiest manager of even the rattiest motel to tolerate it. Usually when there’s a problem, it’s the fault of weak or incompetent management, not complicit management.
I’ll give you a pair of travel tips.
- If it happens, and it goes on for any length of time, or if a high-value item was taken, management is at fault, or at least was negligent (I’ll explain in a bit just how so). So, don’t take any excuses.
- The flipside to that is, before you accuse anyone, make sure you didn’t simply misplace the item. Ninety percent of the time, when guests lose an item. they end up finding it: they packed it in a different part of their bag, a traveling companion packed it in their own bag, or it’s sitting right where they left it.
Years ago, I dealt with a pair of hotels where it was a problem for a time. (Both were in the under-$35-a-night category.)
- In one, the manager – in an apparent effort to save on payroll costs in a good economy, in a town where even fast food joints had to pay a dollar or two more than minimum wage to get help – got the bright idea of using work release inmates from a nearby prison at minimum wage. Brilliant plan: guess what’s going to happen? A visit by the cops to investigate a stolen item was an almost daily occurrence. That – and the fact that the inmates didn’t do a very good job of cleaning the rooms – made the hotel such a successful operation that a year or two later, a Marriott developer was able to buy it at a price low enough to justify tearing it down and building a new Courtyard by Marriott, even though the former motel was less than 20 years old. That motel – built in the mid-70s, in that good a location – should still be running today, but it was literally run into the ground by its owners.
- In the other, the manager hired a guy as a room attendant who, it developed, was a recovering drug addict; and one for whom, on the road to recovery, it was still one day at a time. Even then, the problem started much as usual: little things, chump change off the dresser; eventually, items like loose bills or the contents of a wallet which could be easily disputed and hard for the victim to prove: and finally, jewelry and electronics. The manager just wasn’t paying attention and dealing with the problem: after all, this guy always showed up (unlike some of his other help), wasn’t a difficult employee (except for that one thing he kept hearing stories about, and there were others there who were, each in their own ways, worse), and did a fair job of cleaning the rooms (something he couldn’t necessarily count on by his other housekeepers). His payroll budget – forced on him by the motel’s owner – was so low that most of the hourly help he had were people who couldn’t keep a job elsewhere, and he still had high turnover that was driving him nuts. So of course, he kept giving this one guy the benefit of the doubt, and of course over a few months’ time, it got worse. The manager finally began to think maybe he should have taken the whole thing more seriously when, on the morning that a group that had been staying in the hotel for some weeks checked out – a group that had been the source of several complaints about items taken from their rooms throughout their stay – their parting act was to find the offending room attendant, gang up on him, and beat him up.
But these two instances do nicely to illustrate the prevailing dynamic of the phenomenon:
- Even at that level, pre-employment screening of employees is essential.
- If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. But that doesn’t justify anything, however: you can’t use it as an excuse, and it doesn’t let you off the hook. If you give in to it; if you rationalize that no better help can be had for the amount of money you’re willing to pay, then that’s the kind of help you’re going to end up with.
- It always starts small: items, or amounts of money, not expected to be noticed or that anyone would make a big thing of if they were lost. (It may even start as small – then increasingly larger – quantities of hotel supplies: toilet paper, maybe towels.) Over time, if the most he has to worry about is an hour or two worth of fuss, and can usually count on nothing further coming of it, the thief will go for a high value item like a laptop. (If a new employee starts out that brazen, I’d follow up on who did the reference checks . . .)
- Perpetrators got the benefit of the doubt if the guest’s story was open to dispute – usually, too much. True, you don’t want to make an accusation stick without proof or penalize the innocent, but if you hear the same story two or three times, from two or three different people, in a short time, and it turns out each time the same room attendant made the room? Reality check: with a slick sneak thief, that’s as close to proof as you’re going to get.
- Once it begins, it doesn’t take long for stories to get around. There will be complaints: even in the cheapest motels, guests don’t just take it when their belongings disappear. The staff knows: the complaints come in to the back office through the front desk, and desk clerks as a class aren’t good about keeping secrets… (And if you check the hotel’s reviews on TripAdvisor before you check in, you can know, too.)
- It’s not going to stop on its own. It’s going to get worse until someone stops it. Eventually, there’ll be more than one person involved, once other employees see that it’s possible to get away with it.
- Usually, where it happens, it happens at a cheaper, older property whose owners are trying to milk the last five bucks out of a $3.98 investment. (Both these properties that I dealt with were interstate highway ‘road whores’: older, run-down motels that relied exclusively upon room rentals to walk-in guests coming in off the off-ramp; and ‘guests without baggage’ from the surrounding local area, for nearly all of their revenue.) A cheap hotel that doesn’t rely so much upon its reputation for its business, can recover more quickly from a blow to its reputation. A good hotel with a high reputation has a reputation to protect; upon which it relies to get its corporate and group business – and it therefore has much more to lose from letting something like that happen.
- No hotel, however, is completely immune. For a time, about four years ago, an upscale, full-service Marriott hotel in upstate South Carolina was having a problems with guestroom burglaries by people using duplicate electronic key cards – which can only be produced at the front desk.
- No matter where you go, if you pay less than $60-65 per night for a room, you’re very likely to encounter housekeeping, maintenance or security problems; and this is just one type of security problem
That’s why I say, when there is a problem that goes on for any length of time, management is responsible. (In both places where I’ve seen it happen, management was – through bad hiring practices and negligent supervision – just plain asking for it.) Legally, the hotel’s liability is limited (unless it can be proven conclusively that an employee theft occurred), but still, if the manager had stepped on it nice and hard the first time it showed up as a problem, it would likely have gone no further.
It’s not that difficult a problem to deal with. You just have to move on it quickly.
I don’t hire anyone without a background check (), I’m a believer in random drug testing (a drug problem has no friends); and the first time I start hearing stories about items going missing from rooms, the room attendant responsible is out of there even if I have to suck an unemployment insurance claim for inability to prove it conclusively. Everyone who works for me knows this – being committed to hiring and retaining only decent people to begin with, no matter what the constraints on your payroll budget, helps – so there’s rarely a problem. In the last twenty years, I’ve had to get rid of one room attendant who felt entitled to help herself to lost-and-found items left behind in the rooms by checked-out guests – something we let housekeepers do anyway with items that go unclaimed for thirty days – and she’d only been working there three weeks at the time we caught her. Fortunately, no one called to reclaim any item left behind.
Sometimes, making like Barney Fife and nippin’ it in the bud is the only responsible thing to do. Room thefts by housekeepers are the sort of thing that, if it’s a big problem in any hotel, it’s because it’s been going on for some time.