Bunking Up on Business Trips: 4 Tips for Negotiating Difficult Conversations

Fatimah Gilliam Founder, and CEO The Azara Group

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Many of us have been there. After burning the midnight oil on a project, you race to the airport for a business trip. Exhausted, you cannot wait to get to your hotel to decompress and get some much-needed sleep before your early morning meetings. Maybe you are even looking forward to some alone time. Free from your kids and spouse, there are not any beds to make up and no cooking is required thanks to maid and room service.

Now imagine to save a few pennies, your company required you to share your hotel room with a colleague. No rest for the weary? While most companies do not mandate hotel room sharing, regrettably some do. Virtually nobody wants to bunk with a co-worker.

Recently, my client "Susan" called me for advice to discuss a workplace dilemma. Some clients call when facing tricky situations that require influencing with finesse and tact. Others seek my counsel in strategically negotiating deals or their career advancement.
Working for a successful Fortune 500 company, Susan wanted guidance on how to avoid sharing a room with colleagues without jeopardizing her career or leadership position. She knew raising this issue in a cost-cutting environment was akin to navigating a professional minefield. Susan needed my help on how to discuss this with her boss and diplomatically negotiate voicing her concerns without placing her head on the corporate chopping block.

Susan's Situation—The Big Brother House
Susan and nearly a dozen of her colleagues were traveling to a week-long conference. In the past, everyone always got their room on business trips. To save money, the head of their division decided people should share rooms. The division's leader announced the company would rent a large house—aka "The Big Brother House."

Interestingly, the men on the team were assigned their rooms. The women were expected to double up (except the division head since she was getting her own room).

Uncomfortable with this arrangement, a few of the women found convenient reasons why they did not need rooms—discreetly arranging their lodging. However, Susan's options were to either suck it up and deal, or voice her concerns about the division's new approach to business travel. Before calling me, she offered to pay for her room, which went over like a lead balloon.

There are many issues with this situation—including why only the women were being forced to bunk together. Maybe the assumption was that the women would stay up at night braiding each other's hair or making friendship bracelets?
Regardless of the reason, Susan appreciates her privacy. She felt like she would never have a moment to herself where she could relax—an entire week under the watchful eye of her colleagues and Big Brother 24/7. This was especially troubling since she has a health issue that she wants to keep confidential.

Like many companies, Susan's employer is going through change. She does not want to be labeled as difficult or a bad team player. This would undercut her efforts to position herself as a leader above her peers. She had been taking on more responsibility to better guide the team to improved results and get a coveted promotion. When we spoke, she confessed her chief concern was retaliation from the division head—being sidelined on key projects, taking a hit with her bonus, or eventually being forced out of the company.

While companies can save a few bucks in the short-term, the impact on company morale and promoting a positive workplace culture can have significant lasting negative consequences. Making people share rooms raises a multitude of issues:

Sends the Wrong Message—if you are a Fortune 500 company and fiscally sound, there is no excuse to make adults "bunk up" like they are children at summer camp or college freshman. Employees need to feel valued, want their privacy respected, and like to believe they are working with dignity. Making people share rooms makes people feel disrespected and borders on unprofessionalism. It makes people dislike their employer.

Recruiting and Retention—these kinds of policies can be a serious turn-off and negatively impact your company's ability to attract and retain top talent. For example, I know someone who was offered a senior executive role at Walmart. He was heavily recruited and excited about working for such a prominent corporation until he learned Walmart makes people share rooms on business trips.

This was a deal breaker. Instantly, he knew it would be a bad cultural fit and declined their offer.

Time to Decompress—when traveling for work, people need time to themselves when they do not have to be "on" every moment of the day. Not having a refuge at the end of the day can create a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety. Remember—nobody wants Big Brother watching your every move, even when you are sleeping.

Can We Say "Awkward"—people have interesting quirks about which we do not want nor need to know. Maybe someone snores like a foghorn, shouts profanities while sleeping, has "interesting" pajama choices, or sleeps with a blanky. Companies should not force employees to reveal too much or erode away the veil of professionalism. It can be destructive to learn odd things about people you respect.

The next time your colleague is doing an amazing job pitching a new client, you should not be having flashbacks reminding you of his bathroom habits or how she does 200 squats at 3:00 a.m.

Team Building Disaster—some may argue that sharing rooms can bring people closer together. However, it has the potential to do more harm than good by undermining the team. It could spark arguments or make someone lose respect for a colleague. It can also make people disgruntled and foster resentment.

ADA Issues—there is a chance that forcing people to share rooms could violate the American with Disabilities Act. Not only could someone be forced to reveal a private medical condition, but sharing a room does not provide the privacy needed to take medication. If the person with a disability or medical condition is given her room as a result of having a disability or feeling pressure to disclose a private condition, by being the only person with her room could make others jealous or bitter—further hindering team unity.

Keep It Company-Wide—having room-share policies is especially destructive if they are not applied uniformly. Different divisions, levels of seniority, and genders should have the same rules applied to them company-wide. Otherwise, people feel slighted, may engage in a corrosive passive-aggressive behavior, and resent their colleagues and the company.

At the end of the day, is it worth creating a toxic workplace and destroying employee confidence in the company to save a few dollars in the travel budget? If a company can afford it and is not teetering on the brink of extinction, forcing cohabitation on business trips is not the place to look to trim fat from the budget.

Four Tips for Discussing Touchy Subjects at Work
What should someone like Susan do when faced with this situation? What was my advice so she could get what she wanted and protect her longevity with the company?

1. Be Strategic with Tone, Word Choice, and Timing—You have to be strategic about when you mention something. Think about who is included in the discussion, where the discussion takes place, how you say things, and what you say. So much comes down to delivery, finesse, and optics. You have to plan, prepare, and strategize. If you play your cards right, you can emerge as a stronger leader for the team.

2. Safety in Numbers—When trying to push for what you want, avoid going it alone. Build support and a coalition of the willing. People are always happy to watch you fall on the sword alone to make their lives better. They are also comfortable reaping the benefits of change at the expense of your advancement.

Many lack the courage to speak up and succumb to their fears in silence. However, do not let others get off so easily. It is not always safe being the only loud voice in the room. You will be more effective if you first wage a strategic campaign to enlist supporters behind the scenes, and then speak up to promote your position. If you have limited support, then you have to rely on other tactics.

3. It's Not About You—You will come from a better position of strength if you peg your logic to objective reasons and the bigger picture. If you complain in a way where you seem like a prima donna, then you may fail.
Do not make this about you! Make it about the company, the team, the division, and employee morale—make it about something broader and universal. Link it to protecting the best interests of the company, bringing everyone to a better place, and the bottom line. At the end of the day, you should not be advocating for something that only impacts you or else you will be disliked. You cannot be the exception to the rule.

4. Learn the Policies and Consider Going to HR—Before raising any workplace issue, you need to arm yourself with information. Read what the company policies are. Make sure you understand what your alternatives are. If you feel strongly about an issue and your efforts to persuade others to fail, consider raising the issue with Human Resources. However, be careful. You must be cognizant that this could negatively position you within your division and hinder your advancement at the company.

These tips are useful whenever advocating for something that is important to you at work. The main thing to remember is maneuvering through difficult conversations is like playing chess. It is about being strategic and implementing your action plan. Getting what you want could take time. You may not get what you like overnight.

Negotiate Well—Avoid Earning Your Emmy Award
In the end, Susan was successful in putting these tips to good use. Hopefully, you too will be blissfully sleeping alone on your next business trip.

If you are not sophisticated in negotiating out of uncomfortable situations, your alternative could be to earn your Emmy Award. Channeling your best acting skills, you may have to mask the look of shock on your face when your colleague crawls into bed with his teddy bear and requests you give Mr. Snuggles a goodnight hug—pretending like you are not trapped in an episode of "The Twilight Zone."

The Azara Group (TAG) is a consulting firm that promotes the development of leaders in an increasingly competitive and diverse marketplace—providing strategy consulting services and leadership training services to advance professional and life success. TAG leverages expertise in career strategy, diversity, negotiation skills, and business acumen to provide strategic advice and consulting services to help people and organizations get what they want, achieve their goals, and advance their business and career objectives. TAG also helps companies better attract, retain, and promote diverse talent, and develop robust diversity platforms and strategies to create a more inclusive workplace.

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