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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Audie Cornish. We've been profiling people around the world who are dreaming up innovative ways to solve social problems. Today, we head to Cambodia. The owners of a popular hotel there have decided that the best way to help their employees is to turn the hotel over to them. And they're finding that it's one thing to tell people they're in control and it's another to get them to act like it. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports.
DANIEL ZWERDLING, BYLINE: So, walk into the lobby of the Soria Moria hotel in the town of Siem Reap, it's a three-star hotel, 38 rooms. Nothing fancy but there's wicker furniture in the lobby and it's cozy. And the tile floors are spotless. You look over palm trees from the rooftop bar. So far, pretty standard but now you're going to hear the difference between this hotel and probably every one you've ever seen. Just ask the employees to introduce themselves. Some spoke through an interpreter.
MARIDETH: My name is Marideth and I work here as a receptionist. I am the owner also.
ZWERDLING: You're an owner of the hotel.
MARIDETH: Owner (unintelligible).
CHANDY: My name Chandy. I am food and beverage manager and the hotel owner.
CHHAN VOANG: My name Chhan Voang, bellboy.
ZWERDLING: You're the bellboy, bellman.
VOANG: I am one of the owners of this hotel as well.
ZWERDLING: All 29 fulltime employees are owners of this hotel. Now think about it. Cambodia is a country where most people never got past primary school, yet, now the receptionist of the Soria Moria...
(SOUNDBITE OF RECEPTION)
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
ZWERDLING: Another guest wrote a love song about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
ZWERDLING: Still, Hansen has discovered that it's one thing to give people power on paper. It's another thing to help people who've grown up poor and powerless to start behaving like they have power. I talked about this issue one morning with one of the cleaners. Phhov Tol was mopping the floor in a guest room. How many rooms do you have to clean today?
PHHOV TOL: Ten.
ZWERDLING: Ten rooms.
ZWERDLING: And how many have you already finished?
ZWERDLING: I asked her, what does it mean to be part owner of this hotel? Now, the rules say that the staff votes on decisions that involve spending more than $1,000. Should they buy a new refrigerator, build a swimming pool?
Some people might wonder, why should a house cleaner in a hotel be able to help vote on decisions.
TOL: (Through Translator) Kristin treat us like a family. Kristin love us and trust us.
ZWERDLING: Tol talked about Hansen like she's a monarch. But here's my question, why should a housecleaner like you help make these decisions?
TOL: (Through Translator) Kristin always told us that everyone is the owner of this hotel. It's not her, so everyone can make decision. I'm not quite sure I'm smart enough.
ZWERDLING: And sure enough, when the staff started voting on decisions a couple years ago, they basically rubber stamped what Kristin Hansen said. As we left Tol to finish her cleaning, my interpreter suddenly turned to me.
NY SANDAYVY: Cambodian people, they don't think they have the right to make decision.
ZWERDLING: Her name is Ny Sandayvy. She said, when you ask Cambodians why should you be able to help make decisions, some don't understand your question, especially women.
SANDAYVY: Because before, they never make their own decision. Most of the decision is making by their parent or husband.
ZWERDLING: Kristin Hansen saw this problem too and she figured, okay, let's train the staff to make decisions.
NOEM CHHUNNY: So good afternoon. So welcome back again. Welcome to week four.
ZWERDLING: The worker owners of the Soria Moria are taking management training at a center near the hotel. It's called Possibilities World. On this afternoon, a dozen hotel employees arrange their chairs in a circle under a slow twirling fan. The trainer is Noem Chhunny.
CHHUNNY: Today's going to be really important. We're going to learn accountability, responsibility to the whole team, not just individual success.
ZWERDLING: Over the next few hours, he leads the group through a series of games, you know the kind, they use props like ropes and hula hoops. They're designed to teach teamwork and trust. And then, everyone shares what they've learned. A waiter in the hotel restaurant says he's learning to face conflict head on.
YUK CHHORK: (Through interpreter) Example, last week I have a fight with a cook. Until now, I don't talk to him and he doesn't talk to me. But now I realize that I have to change.
ZWERDLING: But if you can point to one moment when the staff realized we do have some control, it was probably their showdown with Kristin Hansen over the staff trip. You're laughing about this now, but were you upset at the time?
: I was a bit upset, yeah, but I was also be happy as well.
ZWERDLING: Every year since they bought the hotel, Hansen and her husband would close down for four days during slow season, and they take everybody to a resort for vacation. But last year, Hansen worried they couldn't afford it. The world economy was shaky, reservations were down. So she called the entire staff to the dining room again.
That's where Hansen first asked if they'd like to take over. And she told them we should postpone the staff trip. Then, the hotel's bright young bookkeeper stood up. Were you at all afraid of disagreeing with Kristin at this meeting? I mean, she founded this hotel.
YIN SOCHEN: No. I am not afraid.
ZWERDLING: Yin Sochen told his colleagues, we realize business is tight, but this trip is the emotional high point of our year. We'll survive it. And he urged them to vote against Kristin Hansen.
SOCHEN: (Through interpreter) I stand up and I object to the idea because we are based on the majority. Lots of people behind me and support me.
ZWERDLING: And then, one of the women spoke out. She's the bartender now. Lous Dalish, she urged her colleagues to vote against Hansen, too.
LOUS DALISH: (Through interpreter) I am one of the owner. So I have the right to choose. I have confidence to express my ideas, to make decision.
: And I had the vote and they all went against me. I was like, yeah. Actually, it made me really proud 'cause I'm thinking, like, they need to stand up for something. And there you go. They did it.
ZWERDLING: The staff took their trip. And the hotel did fine. And now, Kristin Hansen and her husband have decided they're leaving Cambodia later this year. They're going back to Norway to be with family. So the employee owners will really have to be in charge. And here's one of their next decisions. Should they sell the hotel and walk away with the profits?
An appraiser said they could probably get $300,000. But some employees are backing a more ambitious idea. They want to expand and take over a second hotel. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.