September 6 2013
Randy Markush, BSILR '14
This summer I was fortunate enough to receive an ILR travel grant to travel to Lusaka, Zambia for a 3 ½ week labor relations internship with Protea Hotels. This was my first true international experience, and traveling on my own provided me with a great opportunity for personal growth. In addition to learning a lot about myself, I learned a great deal about Zambian culture and how a Zambian business is run from an HR perspective. Plus, I got to go to Victoria Falls and go on a safari!
My first three days at the hotel were spent rotating through working in housekeeping, the kitchen and restaurant, and the front desk. At first I was disappointed that I had traveled so far to fold laundry and wash dishes, but this part of my experience turned out to be even more valuable than my time in the office with management. Working with the hotel employees gave me the chance to talk to and befriend many Zambians who taught me more about the country, the language, and the working conditions than I could have ever learned without being immersed in their world. After I got to know and understand the workers, I gained a new perspective without which I would not have been able to be effective in my labor relations role.
After I became more aware of the daily reality of the workers, I got an opportunity to put my ILR education to work. I worked with the HR Manager and General Operations Manager who oversaw all seven of the Protea Hotels in the country. There was a case of employee theft where I advised the HR Manager on how to handle the disciplinary hearing procedures and reduce the hotels liability in case the worker, a union steward, tried to sue. To do this, I spent time reading the labor laws and learning the regulations that guide unionization in Zambia. Understanding the country's legal framework was essential to being able to give useful advise on this sensitive issue.
I also looked at the performance appraisals of 70 hourly employees at another hotel location and made recommendations on how they could make the performance appraisals more effective and valuable. I added some new appraisal categories that were more aligned with the hotel's vision and strategy so that workers were evaluated on the most important qualities that directly impacted the hotel's strategic goals. I also added new questions to the self-appraisals that employees complete to get them thinking about specific ways they could improve their performance and develop their skills. It was very rewarding to work on something that can have such a big impact on the entire employee population of a hotel.
The General Operations Manager took me, along with two employees from the hotel's marketing team, down to Livingston, home of the famous Victoria Falls. I stayed at the luxurious Protea Hotel Livingston for free, and enjoyed some delicious buffet meals in the restaurant. The first day, I went with the marketing team to scout out the competition. We visited about ten other hotels, including 5 star resorts right next to the falls and a hotel that had zebra, giraffes, and monkeys running freely around the premises. The next day we went to Victoria Falls, which was an incredible experience. I also spent some time in the back office reorganizing their personnel filing system. At night, I spent time discussing the cultural differences between the U.S. and Africa with the General Operations Manager, a South African man. The drive home was an incredible chance to see hundreds of kilometers of the Zambian countryside. It gave me a great perspective on the contrast between the capital city of Lusaka, where I was staying, with its malls and relatively high level of development, and the more traditional villages in the rural areas. It was a sharp reminder that despite the wonderful hospitality I received, I was still in a third world country. My experience was far from that of the typical Zambian.
Back at the hostel I stayed at, I made some great friends with whom I am still in touch. Young Zambians are well versed in American pop culture, and we spent many nights shooting pool and watching American music videos. My best friend Thomas, a college student who worked at the hostel, brought me out to some local clubs and introduced me to his friends. It was interesting to see that even half way across the world, young people are just as open and eager for a good time as my friends here.
Another friend from the kitchen at the hotel brought me to the village he grew up in. I saw a level of poverty that doesn't even exist in the U.S. Kids stop going to school quite young, often before their teenage years, and begin to use drugs and commit crimes to fund their addictions. It was sad to see young people with no role models and no direction taking their lives down such a destructive path before they've even had a chance to reach their potential. It gave me a new outlook on the importance of mentorship and guidance for young people, especially those who don't have role models in their own neighborhoods.
My trip to Zambia was a great experience that allowed me to grow both personally and professionally. The cultural awareness, independence and humility that I gained will be with me for the rest of my life. Having international HR experience will be extremely helpful as I transition into full time work in our ever-increasingly global economy next year. This trip enriched my Cornell experience far more than any class I took, and I would recommend international travel to anyone looking to get more from their time here at Cornell.