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Low pay amid the height of luxury

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KAI RYSSDAL: It’s a funny world where Porsche’s a luxury brand and Mercedes isn’t. But that’s the way the numbers worked out in a new World Luxury Index from the German Stock Market operator Deutsche Borse

. It’ll sell those ratings on everything from sunglasses manufacturers to high end hotels to investment managers.

The luxury market’s been booming for the past couple of years. But people who work in that sector don’t often make salaries on a par with the products they’re pushing. Or with the people they’re pushing them to.

Yale sociologist Rachel Sherman did some hands-on research into that at some luxury hotels. She’s not saying which ones. But she says she did everything from housekeeping to working the concierge desk. Welcome to the program.

RACHEL SHERMAN: Thank you very much.

RYSSDAL: When you think about luxury goods, it’s really interesting. Because you can have a . . . you know a bag that costs $5,000. Or you can drive a really nice car. But there is something . . . and I don’t know what it is, cause I haven’t stayed in a whole lot of them. But there is something about a five-star hotel.

SHERMAN: Yes, there is. And I have some ideas about what that something is. I mean, mainly, the interactive service that you receive in a hotel. You know, not just the linens being nice. Or the amenities. Or the aesthetics of the hotel. But in fact, the service that you get is highly personalized. You know, they know your name, they might know your pet’s name. They know what kind of food you like. Lots of special things about how you want your experience to be. They . . . you know, are basically there to attend to your every need. They never say no. You know, they break rules for you. And they are sincere in their attention to your needs.

RYSSDAL: In all the time you’ve spent with the service staffs in these hotels, they must have vented to you and said, “I can’t believe that guy who checked in today.” I mean, what is their reaction to some of these people?

SHERMAN: Well, that’s actually what I was most interested in in writing the book and doing the research was . . . how it was that workers responded to . . . you know, this sort of imperative to really pamper the guests. As well as the obviousness of the fact that the guests were many, many, many times wealthier than the workers themselves. And what I found was it’s certainly true that workers will vent and complain about individual guests. But really, the more important thing, I think, is that guests really treat these workers very well. Which I was surprised by. They tip them. They’re gracious to them. They’re thoughtful. Sometimes they even bring them gifts. And there’re many frequent guests in luxury hotels with whom interactive workers can develop friendships or sort of ongoing relationships. And that’s the thing, I think, that allows workers to not think so much about their subordination to guests, but rather to think of themselves as equal to guests.

RYSSDAL: Where does management fit into this equation? You have luxury hotel guests, you have luxury hotel staff, and then I imagine sort of the butter between those two slices of bread is management somehow making it all work.

SHERMAN: Well, it’s interesting. Because certainly management plays a big role in the experience of workers. Obviously setting, you know, wages and disciplinary procedures. But at the same time, I would emphasize . . . and I think this is true of service work beyond the luxury hotel . . . that when you’re a customer in a service enterprise, you are exerting a managerial function. You know, it’s not . . . the managers aren’t always between the workers and the clients in the bread-and-butter kind of analogy. They’re . . . they actually have independent relationships with workers. And they’re setting the conditions under which workers are gonna work a lot of the time. And workers who are tipped, of course, are actually being directly paid by guests or clients as well.

RYSSDAL: Listen, before I let you go. If things don’t work out at Yale, would you go back to hotel work?

SHERMAN: I would consider it.

RYSSDAL: Really?

SHERMAN: Yeah. I mean, I really enjoyed these jobs. And I felt a lot of comradery with the workers. I’m not sure that I could do it long-term, just because of these issues of inequality that I’ve been talking about. But you never know.

RYSSDAL: Rachel Sherman is, for now anyway, a professor of sociology at Yale University. Her book on service and inequality in luxury hotels is called “Class Acts.” Professor Sherman, thanks a lot for your time.

SHERMAN: Thank you.

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