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‘Without getting blamed or silenced,’ female Marriott employees urge executives to address sexual harassment

Eight women spoke at Marriott’s annual shareholder meeting to address issues surrounding sexual harrassment. (Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters)

In her two-and-a-half years as a cocktail server at the W Hotel in Boston, Suzy Elkouarti has learned to respond to the men who visit her lounge with a delicate balance of stealth and grace. From the guests who call her “sweetie” to ones who lewdly describe their sexual fantasies with her, Elkouarti, 25, says she often has to “pick her battles” when deciding whom to report to management, and whom to simply ignore.

On Friday, Elkouarti held a different audience at the JW Marriott in Washington as she spoke before the hotelier’s board members and top executives to describe the company’s inaction when it comes to workplace sexual harassment.

“If the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have taught us anything,” Elkouarti said, “it is that we can’t make progress on the issue of sexual harassment until women feel like they can speak up without getting blamed or silenced.”

Elkouarti and seven other women traveled from across the country to call attention to sexual harassment by hotel guests at Marriott’s annual shareholder meeting. Whether they work as housekeepers or cooks or came from the east or west coasts, each of the women asked that Marriott use its vantage point as one of the world’s most powerful hotel chains to protect its female employees.

Arne Sorenson, Marriott’s president and chief executive, heeded each comment by reaffirming that female employees should not have to come to work fearful of their safety.

“We remain committed to make sure that Marriott is a place where men and women and minorities, no matter how you define yourself, can have the opportunity to grow in your careers in a way that is suited to your capabilities and your drive,” Sorenson said.

“And we’re committed to your safety,” echoed J.W. Marriott Jr., the company’s executive chairman and the chairman of its board.

As each woman took to the microphone, issues surrounding personal safety and sexual harassment became a theme in a meeting otherwise pocked with shareholder comments on employee recognition and loyalty programs. At the start of the meeting, Sorenson highlighted the company’s expansion across the world, accompanied by a presentation promoting new properties, stock performance and record occupancy. Board members lined the front of the conference hall, including Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney.

The women had specifically come to press the company on its part in a lawsuit seeking to overturn a new Seattle law that provides protections to hotel workers, including panic buttons and a record of guests who had harassed workers. It also offers hotel housekeepers help paying for health care as well as job protections in case of a change of ownership. The suit is being brought by the American Hotel and Lodging Association, of which Marriott is a leading member.

The speakers said housekeepers don’t always receive panic buttons that can be activated in uncomfortable or emergency situations, and they said the company should bar guests with histories of inappropriate behavior.

Addressing the lawsuit, Sorenson said it was possible to address issues of sexual harassment outside of legislation.

“In terms of Seattle legislation and other legislation around the country, we don’t think always that this is something the government should impose,” Sorenson said. “We are absolutely dedicated to solving this with our housekeepers.”

Edith Santos, a housekeeper in downtown Philadelphia who has worked for the company for nearly 25 years, told the executives that she and her co-workers go to work everyday fearful that they could be attacked or harassed by guests.

The day before, Santos had 13 check-out rooms to clean, but she still woke up at 4 a.m. so she could reach the meeting in time. She told a reporter of a friend who knocked on a guest’s room only to find him sitting at his desk naked. He waved her inside, but she quickly left.

Managers often handle those complaints by offering to accompany housekeepers if they have to return to the rooms belonging to guests who have been inappropriate, Santos said. But after the initial incident, those protections wither and most guests don’t face any consequences for their behavior, she said.

After the shareholder session, Sorenson invited the women to meet privately with executives from communications and human resources to talk further about their experiences. As she left the closed-door meeting, Ayshad Hajiyeva, who works as a cook in Seattle, smiled and said she’d return home feeling hopeful.

“If we don’t solve these problems, we will have these problems forever,” Hajiyeva said.

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