Building relationships

Dealing with government agencies and hiring new workers is all in a day's work for Four Seasons Hotel Alexandria at San Stefano recruitment and government relations manager Ashraf Nofal.
Building relationships
By Administrator
Wed 09 Jan 2008 04:00 AM

After joining the hotel as its second employee, Four Seasons Hotel Alexandria at San Stefano recruitment and government relations manager Ashraf Nofal has seen the hotel's staff grow under his watchful eye.

Now that the property has recently moved from its pre-opening stage to normal operations, Nofal said his duties have changed from focusing on recruitment to ensuring staff remain satisfied with their work and that any issues are resolved as soon as possible.

We are always working against the clock

"In a normal day I come to the office at around 8.15am, as our normal operation hours start at 9am, so I come [early] to check my reports and drink my coffee to be ready," he said.

"The morning briefing is always with the general manager, the planning committee and the department heads of the hotel at 9am. It's a briefing about the day, and the day before - what happened, what challenges we faced, the good things we did, and what needs to be done to improve."

Nofal said he often contributed to the meetings because the HR department's responsibilities fed into the other departments of the hotels, with items such as employee's birthdays, special events, shift schedules, meetings, training and social events all brought up as part of the daily briefing, which could last up to an hour.

"After the morning briefing I come to my office - for another cup of coffee - and then I start meeting with my employees for any issues I need to investigate or problems that need to be resolved," he explained.

"This is on top of the normal HR tasks, such as recruitment, that I have to do. I schedule interviews for recruitment two days a week, whereas before in the opening phase it was every day. I meet with the candidates twice a week on Sunday and Tuesday from 10.30am until 5pm in the afternoon - I see about 12 people per day.

In addition to conducting interviews to find more staff, Nofal also has regular reports and areas of operation that he is responsible for, he added.

These included managing visas and work permits for expatriate employees, organising employee of the month awards and birthday parties, and co-ordinating a regular dinner - labelled the "night owl" - where the managers have dinner with the night-shift workers to show their appreciation.

"My time is mostly taken up with interviews with the employees, because we have around 600 employees working in the hotel, and they need a lot of things like HR papers, letters of recommendation, or they have problems with their insurance," Nofal said.

"We are here to solve their problems, so we take time listening to the problems and trying to analyse what is going on.

Nofal and his department were also constantly working against the clock to ensure employees met their obligations to the authorities, he said.

"A common issue that we have is dealing with the routines and bureaucracies in the government offices," he explained.

"It takes a long time to finish the papers, and there are a lot of agencies you have to deal with, a lot of permissions you need to get, and a lot of approvals from different offices that you have to chase. Some are in Cairo, some are in Alexandria, some you have to ring on the phone, so you need to chase them all up as soon as possible.

"Time means money, because if you spend more time then the visas will expire and you spend more money getting another visa, and as soon as this happens several times [for different employees] it adds up to big money. So we are always working against the clock to finish as soon as we can to reduce the cost to the hotel as well."

While many hotels across the Middle East and North Africa are struggling to find appropriate talent to fill vacancies, Nofal said the unique standing of the Four Seasons property in Alexandria was proving to be an attractive lure for potential employees.

"At the beginning we started with open days in the hotel, which we advertised in the local newspaper, which brought in a lot of candidates because of the name of the hotel, and it is a unique project in Alexandria," he said.

"We had a lot of candidates. Through five or six open days we received around 12,000 candidates, of which we chose 400. The open days were fantastic to have all the interviews on one day.

"After that we have used our sources in the marketplace. We have a lot of walk-in people who come to the hotel wanting to work here, we have our site on the internet that people are using to apply, and we have our fax where people are sending their resumes.

Nofal said the property was in an enviable position where it did not have to chase applicants, with the supply of candidates outweighing the available positions.

But he still faced challenges in finding potential staff members with the pre-requisite standards of English, he added.

"One of the big challenges I find here is that the English language is not very strong for many of the candidates," he said.

"I can only find one in 10 candidates who can speak English to the required level and meet the standards of our hotel.

"Also, in a city like Alexandria, which in the past was not a big tourist destination like Sharm El Sheikh or Hurghada - you cannot find the really talented candidates who want to work in Alexandria, the ones with real experience in the service and hotel business.

"Our goal is to hire as many people as we can from the Alexandrian people, or the people who were originally from Alexandria [and now work in other cities], so that we feel we have made a difference. But because of this, we are using people who lack experience in the hotel business.

Despite the challenges, Nofal is extremely positive about his job.

"The whole job for me is very enjoyable," he added.

"I am a person who likes having a good relationship with people - I love communicating with a large number of people and my job gives me the opportunity to speak all day with different people and try to solve their problems, meet new people to build relationships with them, as well as meeting people in new government offices.

Providing staff members and colleagues with a ‘safe' working environment was also a bonus of the role, Nofal explained.

"We give very good benefits to our employees," he said.

"Our philosophy is - I believe - one of the best philosophies in the whole world: we let our employees feel ‘safe' working for us. We have an open door policy so that all our employees know they can complain to anybody in the hotel, even the general manager. We are also providing a very competitive salary compared with other hotels, so there are those benefits and medical and life insurance - I think we are providing a very good environment for our employees working here.

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