At Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, a relentless drive for continuous improvement and a culture where trust is a top priority, have taken long-standing strengths—and even times of crisis—to keep its ethics and compliance program moving from strength to strength.
Congratulations on being named a 2023 World’s Most Ethical Companies honoree! What does this recognition mean for your organization?
It’s great to be recognized, as that really tells us that we’re on the right path, but it doesn’t define our why. And our why is that we are absolutely, authentically committed to making the world a better place. And we do believe that ethical business practices drive results, and you can do well by doing good, and we think Wyndham Hotels & Resorts is a great example of that.
Our mission is to make hotel travel possible for all. We seek to do that by fostering a global community of hotel owners, guests, and team members. All of that has its foundation in a culture of ethics and values. We talk a lot about our values here every day with our teams; our integrity, accountability, inclusivity, caring, and even fun…those drive all of our business decisions. We believe that they help us to make a bigger impact not only on the business, but on our communities.
Inclusivity is near and dear to my heart. I’m extremely proud of the company, and our focus on making hospitality a more inclusive industry. We do that in a number of ways. One is by working with great organizations like United Negro College Fund (UNCF) to ensure that our recruiting is as diverse as it can be. And in the past couple of years focusing on driving diversity in hotel ownership through programs like Women Own the Room and BOLD, which I’ll talk about in a second.
Women Own the Room is a fantastic program that was launched just over a year ago, and it came out of the realization that less than 10% of all hotel developers are women, which is unacceptable. So we set out as the first hotel company to build an intentional program designed to advance women hotel ownership. And it’s off to a great start; we’ve already signed deals for 30 hotels, 10 of which are open. And that also, in part, gave us the courage to launch our second program, BOLD by Wyndham, which stands for Black Owners and Lodging Developers.
I love the BOLD story for many reasons. It showcases a great part of our culture, which is that we listen to our team members and really seek to harness the power of their talents—in particular, our affinity business groups, our ABGs. I am privileged to be the executive sponsor of Spectrum, which is our ABG for African-American and Black team members. It was less than a year ago that we sat around a table and talked about how around 20% of hotel staff in the industry are Black, but less than 2% of all hotels in America are Black-owned. Less than 1% for Black women. That is completely unacceptable, so how can we change that? Well, what do we do really well? We help get people into hotel ownership. So we set out to listen, and had a held a focus group of aspiring, and existing Black hoteliers and asked what were the challenges they faced every single day. Was it access to capital? Access to deals? How can we build an intentional program to help you overcome those challenges? That became BOLD, launched about 9 months ago. We already have nearly a 20 hotel deals signed up with entrepreneurs, so that is also off to a great start. But it all began with our ABGs listening and lighting that fire. I love those stories because it showcases our culture and that we are making a difference.
I always like to talk about integrity. Not only are we are we proud of our robust compliance and training programs from anticorruption all the way to human trafficking prevention—and we are making progress on all of those fronts— but it was back in December that we partnered with the HLA Foundation’s No Room for Trafficking Survivor Fund, and committed to donate $500,000 to that fund, which is focused on empowering survivors on their road to recovery. That is another great start, and I was really proud to see the company active in that way.
Many honorees speak to how the applications process is a very involved process, but that ultimately, it helps to build value for their program. What was your application process like, and how valuable was it for you?
It’s a great process. We found a lot of value in it. It gives you an opportunity to reflect on your program, celebrate its strengths, and shine a light on potential improvement opportunities.
We are big believers in a dynamic program. Our ethics and compliance program has to continually evolve in order to remain effective, and the application questionnaire and the engagement with Ethisphere helps us to stay in line with what are the best practices out there.
As the world’s largest hotel franchise, across 95 countries, we really do believe that we have a special opportunity to make an impact on a wide scale and a responsibility to do so. We’re also very competitive, so this process gets our competitive juices flowing. And that just helps us to push the program to new heights.
Your industry was hit hard during the pandemic. In what ways did that crucible help to forge a stronger, better ethics and compliance program?
It really was a crucible. The pandemic forced every business, every department, including ethics and compliance programs, to innovate. For us, it changed how we communicate, how we train, how we, how we build and sustain a culture in a remote world, how we manage, and how we lead. I think importantly, it casts a spotlight on what was important to us, and which really solidified our “owner-first” philosophy and our “Count on Me” culture, which is our service ethos to be responsive, respectful, and deliver a great experience to franchisees, guests, partners, team members, and to each other.
I remember sitting in the executive board room just up the hall on March 13, 2020. It was a Friday. We had been hearing all week about the stories of guests and groups cancelling their travel reservations around the world. We were hyper-focused on the safety of our team members in the office and on our properties. And, on what this meant for our small business, Mom-and-Pop franchisees. Their success is our success.
We were sitting there late in the night on that Friday, with our entire executive team and we would not leave the building until we decided what we were going to do to keep team members safe and how we were going to help our franchisees get through this crisis. We were going to communicate to them that night, and we came up with a plan to eliminate some fees for a short term, provide payment relief, and defer nonessential brand standards.
And some of those are still deferred today. For example, during the pandemic, we really focused on things like the breakfast brand standard in economy hotels. There was a realization that this is going to be difficult to maintain during the pandemic where you’re trying to be lean and really focus on safety. So we relaxed that requirement significantly, and we still have a streamlined breakfast requirement. Why? Because it’s what the guests want. It’s better for owners, and it’s safe. So that was a one of the many great learnings that came out of it.
Ultimately, it also reminded us of the importance of transparency and communication, particularly in a time of crisis. It’s all about maintaining trust with all of your stakeholders. So we sought to be transparent and to over-communicate, and that’s a practice that we have continued post-pandemic.
Trust plays a large part in one’s decision around where they lay their head at night. Can you talk about how your program helps to inform, advance, or empower a culture of trust at Wyndham, and how that trust ultimately is felt by your clients?
Hospitality is all about trust. And it’s such an important part of any functioning and healthy workplace. We really try to foster that through inclusivity, transparency, integrity, and respect. When team members trust their colleagues and their leaders, they’re going to be more engaged.
And we also help them by providing things like robust training programs and a trusted anonymous hotline. All of that engenders trust and encourages them to do the right thing. All relationships here that are key to productivity, including on the ethics and compliance front, require trusted relationships. So fostering those is incredibly important to have in a great program.
On the client side, we like to say that people do business with us because they know us, they like us, and they trust us. Ultimately, that boils down to communication, telling them what we’re going to do, execution and doing what we promise. And accountability, admitting when we’ve made a mistake. If we do all of those things, we will have trusted relationships. And I’m happy to say that we have a 95% retention rate across our franchisees globally, which is fantastic evidence that they trust us and that we’re providing value every day.
Within our organization, I find it’s all in the communication. We remind people that this is not just compliance for compliance sake. I love to quote the Ethisphere Ethics Premium—which I even shared with our Board recently—to remind folks that ethical business practices drive results, and there is a reason why. As we sell the program internally, I think it’s important to make that connection.
This is not a paper program where you roll out a bunch of policies and then just say, “Do it.” It’s really about explaining the why. Why do we have these programs? Why do we have anticorruption policies? How do they benefit the company? How do they help us protect the brand equity that we’re all working so hard to build and help us to do business with trusted partners?
When you put it in those terms and get the buy-in, then you’re going to have a more successful program.
What is something terrific about your ethics and compliance program that isn’t common knowledge?
Our culture and our people are really our secret sauce. And I’m not talking about the compliance and ethics team. Ethics and compliance are baked fully into the DNA of the entire organization like I’ve never seen before. We have an incredible tone from the top, from our board of directors to the audit committee that oversees the program, to our CEO and the entire executive team. There is an appreciation and recognition that our values and our culture drive our success. I find that to be pretty special.
The other thing is that we’re manic about continual process improvement. Compliance programs are only effective if they’re dynamic, and we’re constantly asking how we can get better to match tomorrow’s needs. Every year there’s got to be something new. Nothing is on pause. This past year, we introduced compliance, ethics, and DEI questions into our most recent engagement survey. We doubled down on the importance of engaging our compliance champions in the regions who are helping to set the tone on the ground. And we are reducing what I call “reporting friction” by rolling out QR codes where you can just scan the QR code and it’ll take you right to web reporting. Reducing that reporting friction encourages people to report and makes the program better.
How do you determine what to improve about your program?
We’re always comparing ourselves to our competition and looking to see what the latest advances are. But in all honesty, the World’s Most Ethical process really shows us what the best of the best are doing. Seeing the state of the art practices allows us to benchmark our program and to innovate and evolve.
For organizations that wish to apply to the World’s Most Ethical Companies, what advice would you give them, based on your own organization’s experience?
It takes a commitment to develop and maintain and effective ethics and compliance program. You’ve got to be ready, going in, to make that commitment. It is a lot of work, but it is very rewarding.
And it has to be authentic to your culture and to your company. It’s not a simple cut and paste from some other program. You need to ask what is authentic to you, to your culture, and to your value set. How do you see ethics and compliance?
I would say to a first-time company, use the World’s Most Ethical Companies application process to reflect on the work you may need to do, where your opportunities are, and hold yourself accountable.
Even if you are not honored, applying is such a rewarding process. It will help to make your program better, which will allow you to make a bigger impact on your communities and the world. And that is what it’s all about.
ABOUT THE EXPERT
Paul Cash serves as general counsel at Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, the world’s largest hotel franchising company with approximately 9,100 hotels spanning more than 95 countries. In this role, he leads the Company’s Legal, Compliance and Government Affairs functions and sits on Wyndham’s executive committee. Paul is a member of the AHLA Foundation’s No Room for Trafficking Advisory Council, U.S. Travel Executive Board and Autism New Jersey Board of Trustees.
Most recently, Paul played an integral role in creating BOLD by Wyndham, a groundbreaking initiative designed to engage and advance Black entrepreneurs on the path to hotel ownership.
Paul has been with Wyndham Hotels & Resorts and its predecessor companies for 18 years, including nearly five years as executive vice president and general counsel for the Company. Earlier in his career, he was a partner in the Mergers and Acquisitions practice group of Alston + Bird and prior to that, an associate at Pünder, Volhard, Weber & Axster in Germany.