Honoring Diversity the Hawaiian Way

The 'Hawaiian Renaissance,' which helped restore the language and time-honored cultural practices, has changed workplaces in Hawaii, especially at tourist hotels.

About 40 years ago the Hawaiian language was on the brink of extinction. Traditional Hawaiian culture also was quickly dying out, replaced by a sort of a plastic culture that appealed to the booming tourist trade.

But along came the Hawaiian Renaissance, which helped restore the language and time-honored cultural practices. And with the help of local historian and author George Kanahele, it helped change workplaces in Hawaii, especially at tourist hotels.

Maui’s Ka’anapali Beach Hotel was the first to embrace Kanahele’s ideas of full employee participation in creating workplace values and ongoing cultural education. The program, says the hotel’s cultural director, Lori Sablas, “helps with bonding and treats employees as individuals.” The result? “We have little turnover, no union grievances, no strikes.”

The Hawaiian values program was met initially with suspicion by some native employees, who resented interference by “haoles,” a Hawaiian term for white people that can be derogatory. But the program has since been embraced throughout the islands, including at Outrigger Hotels & Resorts, where loyal employees with 30 to 40 years’ service attest to its impact.

“One of the things I’m proud of and makes me feel good is that Hawaii is a melting pot of cultures, and everyone gets along here,” says Robert McConnell, general manager of the Outrigger Waikiki. “We all are treated equally.”

The key is education, Sablas says. At Ka’anapali she has presented more than 70 employee classes on Hawaiian culture, and she’s always asking for each person’s own cultural perspective on the topic.

“We share stories. What can we learn from them? The benefit is a better understanding of your co-workers that allows you to work better together.”

Susan G. Hauser is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.