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Kevin Brooks: Proactively Removing Unintentional Hiring Barriers at East Bank Club

Kevin Brooks

Director of HR

East Bank Club

Tell us about your current role and how you got there

I’ve been the Director of HR for the East Bank Club for 26 years with a staff of 4 people. We currently handle 450 employees, but pre-Covid that number was closer to 650. We manage every part of the employee lifecycle from hiring to off-boarding.

I grew up in Las Vegas and earned a degree from The University of Nevada Las Vegas, or “Hotel School,” as we call it. Upon graduation I got a job with Hyatt Hotels as a management trainee. I landed in Human Resources after about six months, and I’ve been in HR ever since.

I was with Hyatt for 14 years, and was promoted to Director of Human Resources, working in seven hotels in four different locations. I came to East Bank Club 26 years ago, and I’ve been here ever since. I will be retiring at the end of this year.

How did you find your first job?

Recruiters came to our school to seek entry level employees. Seniors were able to interview with many hotels, and after meeting with 10-20 companies, I was lucky enough to get two offers. One was with Hyatt Hotels. I started my career at a Hyatt in San Francisco.

How did you learn the etiquette of interviews and the workplace in general?

I definitely had help. People taught me how to prepare for an interview and make a positive impression without appearing overconfident. During my first year in San Francisco, a CFO pulled me aside and said, “Look, that suit you have on may have been okay in Las Vegas, but we don’t wear that type of suit here.”

I always remember that conversation as a kind gesture to help me acclimate to a new working environment.

That same mentor also once pulled me aside and showed me a newsletter that I had put out, and he had circled seven or more errors. He told me that it was important to proofread everything that I was sending out and make sure that it was completely correct before I shared it. That was such an important lesson for me that I’m still telling that story today.

What kinds of obstacles have you had to overcome to achieve what you have in your career?

There will always be different challenges from year to year, and what’s important in a business climate is to adjust to whatever the current situation is. At one time we faced an employee shortage, and now we’re in an employee surplus. With the pandemic, our current situation is unique.

No one has ever faced anything like this during our lifetime, so it’s a completely new climate.

What makes East Bank Club special?

We have two goals: Take care of our members by taking care of our employees.

We believe we have to first take care of our employees so that they can take care of our members.

We want to provide a beautiful environment to work in and for members to work out in. What makes us special is the human touch, from our employees to our members. Many of our members have been here for years, and so have our employees, so there’s a human connection there.

Another thing that makes us special is that we’re privately owned. All decisions are handled on a local level, so that provides freedom to run Human Resources in the way that we want, which is to do the best we can for employees. We’re able to pick and choose what experiences we want for employees, and that works well for us.

What are the current challenges East Bank Club is facing?

When I look back at March of this year, our goals for 2021 through 2023 looked a lot different then than they do now. We’ve had a reduction in members and there are city-wide restrictions on factors such as class size, so the goals have had to shift quite a bit.

We’ve really had to come back and reinvent ourselves as a smaller version of ourselves.

Both to abide by the city’s restrictions, and also address the real anxieties people have about safety. We’ve shifted into that role, and I think we’ll operate this way for quite a long time, depending on vaccines and related factors.

What are the entry-level jobs that East Bank Club has that don’t require a four-year degree?

Other than positions like personal trainers, yoga instructors, or building engineers, four-year degrees or certifications are not required for the majority of our jobs. Customer service and member services come to mind. We have positions in our spa or locker room, and we also have housekeeping and back or front of house positions in food services. There are some entry-level positions in aquatics and sundeck positions during the summer months. There are many positions with low barriers to entry at our club.

You mentioned a labor shortage in the past. What were the types of positions you had trouble filling, and what precludes applicants from occupying those positions?

We did a study on this recently, and the positions we had a hard time filling were dishwashers, lifeguards, locker room attendants, and reception desk.

We do a criminal background check including an employment verification, as well as a drug screen (although we no longer check for marijuana). We’ve looked into moving away from a drug screen, but we aren’t there yet. We find that most applicants pass the drug screening.

As for criminal background, we take it on a case by case basis, but there’s no problem with hiring people as long as they let us know up front.

About five years ago we loosened up on criminal convictions, and that has helped us a great deal.

Do entry-level employees progress at the company?

They do have opportunities available here. After six months they are welcome to apply to another position, and in many of these positions, no previous experience is required. So I do believe we have a lot of opportunities for our employees to move up.

What are the ways you source entry-level talent?

Prior to 2019, we ran online ads and interviewed respondents. We became involved with an initiative called Reimagine Retail that introduced us to resources like Cara and Skills for Chicagoland's Future (Skills). We would rather go to them than online ads, and we’ve completely flipped the switch.

Editor's Note: Cara is a non-profit organization that has helped people affected by poverty to get and keep quality jobs. Skills for Chicagoland’s Future (Skills) is a public-private partnership working to match businesses that have current, unmet hiring needs with qualified, unemployed and underemployed job seekers.

We learned the value of reaching out to people that may not find us in an ad. When you get a response to an ad, you’re calling someone out of the blue and making a decision on one short interview. With using Cara and Skills, we were able to get more background information and see people that have come through their pipelines. It felt like we were not only filling our needs, but helping the community as well. We’ve now hired quite a few people through these organizations.

What the Initiative did was open our eyes to how we were screening people out inadvertently.

We made some changes to how we do things, and that has opened more doors for us.

What are the advantages of working with partners such as Cara and Skills?

The pool of people who are available and want to work is expanded beyond just people who see our ads.

It’s a win-win: it helps us employ people, and it helps the East Bank Club.

And people we hire tell others how they came to the East Bank Club, and that encourages other people to apply. It helps with recruiting without the need to to place an ad.

Cara provides continued mentorship for employees which is helpful when we’re having issues with an employee, such as scheduling or performance issues. Cara can help us engage the employee and help us keep them employed.

We hire some of the people they send us if they are a good fit, and there are some that are not a good fit and we don’t offer them employment. I think it’s a sign of a failing partnership if we didn’t hire anyone they sent us. We have good communication which fosters trust and leads to a good partnership.

I think that most employers are missing the boat by not getting involved in programs like Reimagine Talent.

I learned so much over the year that I participated in the program. It was an eye-opener to what is possible beyond the standard hiring practices. There are barriers to employment that we didn’t know existed, and all employers should go through something like that as well. It was a cool year.

Can you give an example of an employee that you hired through one of these programs that was a success?

We had a woman that we hired for our food shop, serving members as a cashier and getting them coffee and offering other assistance with food and beverage items to go. And she was one of these employees who came in and had a positive attitude and just a great personality and ability to serve our members. She hit the ground running, and a few months in, she won employee of the month. She really did a great job. We also had an employee from Cara who came in as a coat check person. She had a great personality and a smile that was so big, and she won Employee of the Year during her second year. So that's a couple of great successes.

Can you tell us about a situation where a placement didn’t work out? And what were the challenges?

When employment doesn’t work out, it usually has nothing to do with ability to do the job. It either comes down to a personal issue that’s seeping into the workplace and causing things such as attendance issues, or it may be that they have an attitude issue, or maybe they’re just in the wrong job. It’s usually either behavioral or outside issues that affect the job.

How do you think Chicagoland employers should address poverty in neighboring communities?

I think first they must become aware of the situation and then find ways that they as a business can help address it. I became aware of the Reimagine Talent Initiative through one of my colleagues I know through a hotel association here in Chicago, They set up a meeting with the Initiative. We decided to apply and were accepted, and got a lot out of it.

Are there things you would like to do as an employer of entry-level talent to be more inclusive that you aren’t able to do right now?

As a result of the recent social unrest, we are starting a Diversity and Inclusion initiative with the assistance of an outside trainer.

Up until now we feel that we were doing the right things, but we weren’t being sufficiently proactive.

And being proactive is a step we need to take to be better, so that’s what we’re focused on right now.

On a personal level, why is it important to you to hire inclusively?

I think everybody has to start somewhere. When I was 16, I started in a hotel and I was pretty young for a hotel worker. I worked as a bus attendant and then I moved up to the dishwasher and ended up being a pantry cook. That's where I learned to work with people.

I think it is critical in a lot of our jobs to remember that people need a chance to show what they can do and be judged on that.

I've always tried to get involved with diversity hiring programs. Probably 30 years ago I was working in a hotel and we hired from a training program for people with disability challenges. So I think I've always tried to look at the landscape and see where people need opportunity.

I worked several entry-level jobs myself, and I think it’s a valuable experience for everyone, including my kids. My daughter worked for an organization that helped children that were abused, and there she learned valuable lessons without being paid. Several years ago there was an opening at a local cleaners that I go to, and my son took the job there, even though it was paying minimum wage. I told him that while he may not be making a lot of money, it was the experience that was invaluable.

What experiences have you had that help you empathize with entry level talent at your organization?

I think going all the way back to being a bus attendant, and walking in as the new kid on the block. Learning from very experienced people what it took to work and how to do it and the right way to do it. I think I connect with people, on whatever level they're at. If the person's a dishwasher or custodial person, I think it comes down to respect, connection, being honest with people, listening, learning about their experiences and knowing that everybody in our organization is important.

Not just the executive team or the management team, but everybody is important. We need them.

If we don't have clean dishes for people to eat off, then we're failing at the basic level. So I think it's that lesson that everybody in the organization is important, no matter what your position.

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