Marriott phone hotline yields 4-to-1 return

Incorporating low-wage employees key to success

Washington, DC-based Marriott International has realized a four-to-one return on investment with its Associate Resource Line, a telephone help-line for employees that includes counseling similar to that provided in an employee assistance program.

But the project, started about three years ago, was not an immediate success, notes Donna Klein, director, work/life programs. Rather, she says, Marriott’s success comes from its willingness to listen to its employees and to be flexible enough to change the program when needed.

"We had been providing work/life programs for a few years when we went back to measure their impact," she recalls. "They had a substantial impact on the management population but very little on our wage workers. As a business, we are very dependent on our line workers — they interface with our clients on a regular basis. So we decided to re-vector our efforts and create programs that would have a greater effect on wage earners and still be flexible for the managers."

Marriott designed a program with the help of The Partnership Group, now a subsidiary of Minneapolis-based Ceridian Performance Partners. Ceridian serves as the provider for the current program.

There were specific considerations concerning this population of lower wage earners. "Very little had been done for them; they were pretty much undefined," says Klein. "We decided to put a stake in the sand to create new knowledge and customized solutions to meet their challenges — which are enormous."

One of Marriott’s key strategies was to provide a "holistic" response — addressing the needs of the family in its entirety. "In other words, one-stop shopping, including most of what you’d find in a traditional EAP," says Klein. "We are very diverse; we speak 26 languages. Issues like immigration, housing, and transportation are very important."

When the program was first implemented, Klein discovered that something as seemingly innocuous as a program’s name could affect utilization. "We started with pilot programs in Florida, Texas, and Chicago, using an "800" number hotline. We began to advertise it internally as the ‘Family Resource Line,’ but people in non- traditional families opted out because they didn’t think they were families," Klein observes.

So, what did Marriott do? "We changed the name," says Klein. "Then, we ran rollouts for each of the pilot programs, including on-site meetings and events to advertise the program [under the new name Associate Resource Line]. After the pilots exceeded our expectations, we rolled the program out nationally."

The results to date, says Klein, have been "fantastic." Since its inception, the program has had a total of about 10,000 callers. "In 1997, the utilization rate was tracked at 7% — about double what a traditional EAP will get," according to Klein.

"Even more amazing, conventional wisdom says that low-income people will not use an ‘800’ number," says Klein. "We found that they will if you advertise it properly." This included making sure the employees knew the service was confidential; employing simple, user-friendly internal collaterals. "Each poster includes tear-off sheets," notes Klein. In addition, many Marriott properties have put in special telephone kiosks, recognizing the fact that some low-income workers do not have their own phones.

The strategies have clearly worked. "In 1996, we found a fourfold return on investment, based on absenteeism, tardiness, and retention," Klein reports. "Probably most compelling was an increase in loyalty and productivity, reduced stress [a reported 68% reduction], and better relationships among employees."

[Editor’s Note: For more information, contact: Donna Klein, Marriott International, 1 Marriott Drive, Washington, DC 20058. Telephone: (301) 380-3000.]