By Lindsay Levinson
The list of characteristics that define me as an employee and a leader is long and varied. Towards the bottom of that list is the fact that I am a woman with cerebral palsy. For the most part, I have proven my value in our industry without having to add an asterisk about being disabled.
We work in an industry that requires long periods of standing, running, bending, and lifting. This can lead to interesting predicaments for me, as I move with the balance, precision, and grace of a drunkard. I am used to the stares and awkward attempts at empathy from both guests and new colleagues. And, at least a few times a year, an upset guest says something hurtful or imitates me in an attempt to get what they want. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest, as it speaks more about their character than mine. When this happens, my co-workers usually come to my defense with a passion that I can only liken to warriors entering a battle.
Some time ago, however, at a property that shall remain nameless, I was hit with a blow to my self-image that shook me to my core. I sat around a large conference table with my fellow managers discussing our latest management satisfaction survey. Like at most meetings, we all lost interest quickly and started scrolling through our phones. Suddenly, I was snapped back to reality. One of our executive team members was discussing our manager-on-duty program and mentioned that a woman could never be a manager on duty in the evening; it was too dangerous. This was absurd for two reasons. First, we were in the suburbs of Chicago and nothing “dangerous” really ever happened. Second, being a woman would not prevent me from calling the police, which is what we would do if anything really dangerous ever happened. He had said this as casually as if he were telling me the time of day. I glanced at the Director of Human Resources hoping that I was not the only person in the room that had heard of Title VII. Her silence and a lack of eye contact told me that I was not going to get any assistance from her. I said as calmly as possible that he could not do that. As arrogantly and insensitively as he could, he said: “I just did.” I dropped it.
I had already heard rumors that I had been discussed in the executive meetings and how badly they felt that I was stuck in middle management because I could not move around the property well enough to do more. I had wondered if the rumors were true but this flippant reaction confirmed that they probably were. I was defined by this manager, my boss, as a handicapped woman, and had thus hit his glass ceiling.
This incident lead to several meetings. I met with the General Manager. I met with Human Resources. I met with regional team members. I asked if conversations had taken place about my inability to be promoted due to my difficulty walking. With guilt and worry on their faces, they admitted that these discussions took place. No one apologized. Weeks went by and women were still not MOD due to what the executive management considered chivalry. Two weeks later, a manager made a comment during a staff meeting about women being too emotional and followed it up by telling me not to cry. Clearly, nothing changed except for my self-esteem.
I had never before thought that I could not do more because of my cerebral palsy and certainly not because I was a woman. Worse than just thinking it, I started to believe it. It scared me. I was losing the tenacity that had gotten me so far. I did what I had to do. I looked for another job.
I had worked for two major hospitality companies that seemed to care more about who candidates knew than what they could achieve. I wouldn’t do it again. Instead of looking for any position, I looked for one at a company that was purpose-driven; I wanted to be part of something bigger.
I interviewed at a few places. I interviewed at the Hyatt Regency in Lisle for a front office manager position. The second interview was with a member of ownership from Vinayaka Hospitality, a growing owner-operated hotel company. As if the universe was testing me, I walked into the interview and promptly fell on my face. It didn’t seem to faze him. I, however, was mortified and my hopes of an offer were dashed. To my delight, I was wrong. A few days later I with him and another member of the ownership team. As if she read my mind, toward the beginning of the conversation, she smiled and said, “we are hiring you for your brain, not for your ability to move around. Don’t worry.”
A week later, I gave notice and started as the Director of Operations at the Hyatt Regency in Lisle. They had seen something in me and knew that I could do more, so they made me a DOO. Since then, I have been promoted to General Manager of that property and promoted once again to a regional finance role. I have been part of a major acquisition and a brand conversion. I have cleaned guest rooms and delivered luggage. My ability to move around never once stopped me. I still fall down all the time; it happens and always will. However, that doesn’t define me or value in this industry.
I found a company that defines its team members by their strengths and not their weaknesses. Now, when I sit around a conference table, I have too much to accomplish to mindlessly scroll through my phone.