The Problem with Seasonal Employees
Everything which irritates us in other people can lead to a deeper understanding of ourselves.Carl Gustav Jung
During this summer season of 2023, we noticed that several customers found a lack of professionalism in our staff. We regret this and apologize for the inconvenience caused, whether or not it is directly attributable to us. We will discuss this further in this post. We have never been perfect, not even in previous years, and the current job market situation doesn’t help. However, the level of criticism has never reached such harsh and unpleasant tones.
The evening shift staff is mainly accused of shortcomings. Coincidentally, this is the time when most of our staff of color work. Regarding this, we identified three reviews on the well-known TripAdvisor portal, where the authors assume that the reason for the presence of so many people of color is an attempt to save on personnel costs. This assumption seemed so significant and inappropriate to us that – as the person responsible for staff – I decided to write a post to address the issue of seasonality and the massive foreign presence in our staff.
I hope that the problems I will discuss will not seem unfounded if read by someone with common sense.
Foreign presence in our staff: numbers and trends
Let’s start with some numbers.
At the height of the season, the foreign presence in our staff, out of a total of 46 regularly employed employees, was divided by nationality as follows:
- 13 Senegalese people (2 in production and 11 in sales, 4 in the morning shift and 7 in the evening shift)
- 3 Syrian people (in production)
- 2 Indian people (morning dining area shift)
- 2 Romanian people (1 in production, 1 in the evening dining area shift)
- 1 Palestinian person (in the evening dining area shift)
Out of a total of 46 employees, 25 are Italian. Adding 6 owners actively involved in daily work, including myself, we have 31 Italians and 21 foreigners working for our company. A clear Italian majority, to begin with. And we want to emphasize that many of the jobs assigned to Italians are not highly qualified, which would have made it even easier, if the purpose of having so many people of color was to save money, to hire even more and lower wages.
From the list above, it’s clear that our Senegalese staff members are the ones who stand out to our customers. The presence of Romanian, Indian, and Middle Eastern staff has been stable for several years; in fact, the Indian presence has significantly decreased in the last two years, especially in customer service. Yet we have never received such virulent reviews as those read this year, not even when we had three or four Indian people in the room, even during table service hours.
Logically, only two possibilities remain to explain the tone of some opinions:
- Our Senegalese staff – and only them – are particularly unprofessional, to the point of making our customers think that by hiring them instead of Italian employees in the same roles, we can afford to lower wages.
- It’s the black skin of our Senegalese collaborators that excites the imagination of those who write, especially in the evening shift, where their presence was particularly accentuated this year.
Since I cannot speak about each customer individually, I will limit myself to refuting the first thesis. Once this is done, either only the second remains, or someone has to suggest a third possibility. A possibility that, despite having posed the problem to several people, no one has yet been able to provide me with. Given the rumors heard during the summer, even from people who call themselves “cultured” or “progressive,” I am quite convinced that what is at work, when called by its proper name, is pure and simple racism: people believe they see in our company, without evidence, a tendency to racial discrimination that exists on a large scale in our society, despite the superficial goodwill of parlor speeches; they therefore attribute this tendency to us when, perhaps, they should turn the finger they point at us 180 degrees…
The root problem: seasonal employees
It is no secret to anyone that the presence of young Italians in the current job market has been steadily decreasing for years, especially when it comes to jobs in the hospitality and catering sector. I have already addressed this issue elsewhere. On one hand, there is a general demographic problem, due to the aging of the Italian population, which complicates the search for fresh labor to be included in the workforce. On the other hand, for some reason, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated a trend of disaffection towards jobs in catering that was already underway (my father always talked about it, he was in charge of personnel before me) and that makes our task increasingly difficult. I deliberately say young Italians because it is among them that men and women willing to work late into the night (in summer we close at 2:00 am) were more easily identified. It is entirely understandable that those with families, especially women, prefer daytime and/or afternoon working hours if they have the choice. In the past, especially since I replaced my father in personnel management, the evening staff has almost always been made up of groups of Italians, with a trend reversal that suddenly manifested itself in the last two years.
I would now like to focus on the effort to explain, in a few lines, the difficulties encountered after recruiting a seasonal human resource while work is underway. I will only later analyze the differences – real and presumed – between Senegalese and Italians.
The issue of professionalism, in a seasonal context, is very peculiar. This is particularly true for chaotic and time-concentrated jobs like ours, especially in August, when we have always recorded the vast majority of negative opinions about our service. Once a person is hired at the beginning of the season, there is just enough time to train them in basic tasks before starting the climb towards increasingly intense work peaks. After the second week after mid-August, the pace normalizes again and the season is over. It’s a bit like asking someone to run the 100 meters after doing some test runs with a few sprints here and there, mostly based on trust: it may be that the subject is fit and serious enough to handle occasional training well, but their performance deteriorates significantly when subjected to continuous stress. Performing at the top every day is simply not for everyone. Fortunately, we have been able to rely for years on a core group of collaborators, present with us all year round, to whom we can delegate various responsibilities, confident that they will carry them out in our best interest. Unfortunately, they alone cannot solve all our problems, simply because we are a business located by the sea, which produces 80% of its annual turnover in 4 months, of which 33%, a full third, in August alone. It is clear that we need to recruit many passing human resources. Even wanting to invest more time in testing and training them for a season, there are materially no opportunities. By its nature, the training of a clerk or waiter cannot be theoretical: their ability to handle stress and work as a team can only be seen in the field. It is not uncommon for someone who performs well on low-season weekends to prove fragile and fallible when the work intensity of a few spring days is required every day of the week. And there are no opportunities to test this before the season starts, because Torre dell’Orso does not offer such continuity of work, at least until the villages and rental houses are filled with tourists. At that point, however, the employment contract is done and the options available around are not encouraging: replacing a unit means fishing for people who have not been selected by other businesses, probably for valid reasons, but the problem of training them properly remains; it simply becomes even more difficult. There have been happy cases of this kind over the years, but the odds are against us: statistically, out of 20 thrown into rough waters, 19 drown and only one learns to swim well or decently, resisting to the end. For this reason, given the ability – proven or presumed – of a person to reach the end of the season without causing major problems to the group in which they work, a conservative approach is often the lesser evil, if we admit that the company’s goal is to stay open and provide the maximum number of services and products it is capable of.
There is only one exception: a rude or troublemaker person, who acts as a loose cannon in their work group. This is the kind of branch that needs to be cut as soon as possible, without any regret.
There would be much more to explain about the problem of seasonal human resources, but I will stop for the sake of brevity.
Why so many black-skinned workers?
Easily said: their greater reliability (of course, on average), which is granted by their family structure and their set of motivations.
For the reasons described above, the reader should have already grasped two basic facts:
- working in a seasonal company serving big volumes of customers, as ours, is not a good fit for everybody
- it is hard to properly test a draft to make sure he/she is endowed with the seriousness, politeness and stress resilience required to deliver a peak performance all through the summer season
In the face of so much uncertainty, it is clear that reliability is the variable to which the most weight should be attributed when deciding whether to hire, keep on the team, or fire someone. By reliability, I mean the probability, more or less high, of completing a season without causing problems. A collaborator who may be slow or imprecise in their work, but is polite and works for four or three full months, depending on the agreements made, is always preferable to a “prima donna” who works sporadically or one of the countless individuals (and many of our fellow countrymen fall into this category) for whom everything is fine until the end of July, then it’s every man for himself…
And here we come to the reason why people of color have been preferred by me, in many cases, over their Italian counterparts, which is almost the opposite of what those who make baseless assumptions about us believe. The reason is neither that they are better than us at doing their job nor that they are cheaper, given the quality of the work performed. On the contrary, the negotiating ability of a people who, as we can all observe on our beaches, live by trade, is much better than that of many Italians. However, and this is the key, their options are limited and their motivation is unique: a clear and certain salary. Given such a guarantee on our part, we have found that it is statistically much more likely to have a Senegalese by our side than an Italian. Whatever one might think, a young Italian has many more whims: they want a decent salary, but they don’t really need it if they have to work late into the night, especially in August; they want to “work for the season”, but only if they work exclusively in the morning, because they can’t give up their evening outings; and then, to be honest, if an Italian leaves, they (for now) have a safety net that allows them to land on their feet. Let’s not talk about the seriousness regarding the agreements made, which has not been a concern of our young generations – nor of their parents – for a long time. A Senegalese immigrant who needs to earn a reputation has none of this, so their behavior at work is mono-motivated: to receive a salary. They are neither worse nor better, humanly speaking; simply, the environment in which they live induces them to focus their effort on a single purpose, which they know they can achieve with us, thanks to the word of mouth of their fellow countrymen who have already preceded them in our staff over the years, who paint us as serious employers.
Reliability is not a characteristic typical only of those who live in difficult conditions. It also belonged to the southern Italian family not too long ago. Born in 1986, I belong to the last generation that grew up free from the influence of social media and the illusion of an easy and trouble-free life, which is why I remember these dynamics in our social fabric. Over time, I have seen them deteriorate, almost to the point of disappearing. In the era of social media posts and online shopping, everything is easily replaceable and loses value, from the item that is returned to Zalando without the need for any reason or human interaction, to the job that is abandoned without regret for the agreements made in the middle of the summer.
Big question: is the person of color therefore “better” than the Italian, in any sense? Absolutely not. The person of color is, statistically (obviously, statistically) more likely to stay until the end, because they work, in most cases, exclusively for the money and know that they are unlikely to be paid better than at Dentoni, where they receive the same salary as a white person of the same level, and they do not have a family behind them that will support them if they fail to keep their commitment. Moreover, given the authoritarian nature of the parent-child relationship in the Muslim patriarchal family, to which all of our Senegalese collaborators belong, the likelihood of not losing them along the way increases exponentially if we have good relations with the relative who directs them to work for us, as is the case for several workers; if the recommendation comes from a blood brother, the father often delegates to him the management of the relationship with the employer; this is because the Muslim family, in addition to the authoritarianism of the parent-child relationship, is characterized by equality between male siblings, which is also reflected in the sharing of the educational task towards children and grandchildren.
Peculiarities of 2023
Last July and August, there is no doubt that some of our Senegalese employees did not stand out for their empathy towards the public and for their efficiency at work. Given their basic view of life, which is undoubtedly much more relaxed than ours in the West, which does not help to be at the peak of efficiency in jobs like ours, there are significant differences even among Senegalese individuals, as is naturally the case. We are proud and pleased with some of them and look forward to welcoming them back to the team in 2024 with open arms. We are much less proud of some of them because we know they often gave the impression of behaving with complacency and operating too slowly, leading some to deduce that they are being “exploited”. The lack of mastery of the Italian language by some of them certainly did not help when they had to deal with questions from some of our customers, who were probably understandably annoyed by the confusion they found themselves in during peak hours. The reason they were still retained on the team should be clear from the pragmatic considerations I previously stated, to which I feel compelled to adhere out of pure realism and pragmatism. I further clarify that the same situations of dissatisfaction – ours before that of our customers – regarding seasonal clerks and waiters are as old as our business, but they certainly stood out less, perhaps because of a more “pale” complexion, even if of no different substance.
I conclude by renewing our commitment to repeat, for the next, forty-third season, the search for empathetic and willing staff who can make Dentoni’s patrons feel at home.
I trust I have fully answered, for those who have eyes to read and common sense to understand, the biased and offensive criticisms that have been directed at us.
P.S. It is my personal conviction that TripAdvisor is based on an unfairly asymmetric system: anybody can publish an unchecked, offensive review that can do a certain amount of harm to a business, just because they find it unfitting their preferences. That said, I use it too, knowing that the message I must get from the platform is statistical at best and that rude or overly eulogizing reviews are to be taken with a grain of salt. What I would really love to see are the two following things:
1 – a KYC system for TripAdvisor accounts, which obliges reviewers to identify and to acknowledge that, in order to express their opinion, they must be liable for them. This would put skin into the game of reviewers.
2 – a section within the social platform where business owners can review customers. Since business owners or managers see many more customers than customers see restaurants and cafés or whatever, the latter would write way less reviews, which would be focused on the real outliers. And, believe me: outliers like certain customer I have in mind are really easy to spot for anybody!