TakeCare for Tomorrow

David Rodriguez knows firsthand how Marriott International’s innovative wellness program goes above and beyond to make employees feel like family

Since starting the business more than ninety years ago, the Marriott family has been passionate about caring for their employees like family. Marriott International executive vice president and global chief HR officer David Rodriguez felt that passion and drive immediately upon joining the organization in 1998. That connection bloomed in 2010 with the development of TakeCare, a revolutionary wellness program that expanded organically thanks to employee champions around the world. Unbeknownst to Rodriguez, he would become one of them.

In 2014, Rodriguez took what was supposed to be a relaxing beach vacation. But his trip was interrupted when his doctor called with grave news: Rodriguez had leukemia, and if he didn’t return home that night and begin immediate treatment, he might not survive. That’s when TakeCare became much more than a program; it became a life-saver.

David Rodriguez, Marriott International

“I was educated about taking care of myself through TakeCare,” Rodriguez says. “It was one of the reasons why I was able to get through the cancer treatment very well, and why I’m alive today.” And he’s not alone. Marriott employees have used the program to change their diet, change their exercise habits, quit smoking, and more. One married couple who works at one of Marriott’s hotels used the program to help lose more than one hundred pounds together, Rodriguez says. He believes that TakeCare could only have come from a culture like Marriott’s, one so eager to evolve with the specific needs of its employees.

“The philosophy here is that the best and most sustainable way to deliver exceptional service to customers is to ensure that it starts with taking care of our own associates,” Rodriguez explains. The Marriott family has managed to achieve something that eludes the grasp of most large institutions: maintaining the feeling of a small family business despite being the largest hotel company in the world.

The culture is defined by a set of five core values that guide every decision at Marriott. “The most important value is to put people first in our daily decisions and actions,” Rodriguez says. In addition, Marriott employees aim to pursue excellence, embrace change, act with integrity, and serve our world. At the company’s core, Rodriguez says, is the belief that everyone wants to live a good life and feel positive about their future, to work in an environment of mutual respect and support, and to be proud of their company’s employees. As chief HR officer, Rodriguez is focused on establishing innovative programs to support the company’s associates and bolster this culture.

The culmination of that culture is TakeCare. At its origin, the program was run exclusively from the company’s headquarters near its Washington, DC, birthplace as an extension of the core value of putting people first. While many companies start wellness programs in the hopes that employees will be healthier (and that medical expenses will go down as a secondary benefit), Marriott was more focused on the cultural value and, as such, focused on holistic well-being. Beyond physical health, the Marriott team developed a cohesive focus on promoting things that make employees feel good about themselves, relationships within the company, and the company’s purpose in society.

While the program was initially only launched in the United States, employees spread TakeCare through word of mouth to colleagues at other Marriott hotels across the world. “Long before we looked to bring it to other hotels or countries, we found it was already there,” Rodriguez says. “There were these informal TakeCare champions, people who got so passionate about wellness and that helped others start their own programs.” But they weren’t merely spreading the same iteration of the program; as TakeCare grew internationally, it melded to the needs and desires of each location. In addition to focusing on good physical health, some hotels focused more on emotional health, while others added in diversity and inclusion programs, and yet others built in more opportunities for community service. The “care” element of TakeCare quickly diversified to care for the community in addition to the employees themselves. “It was at that point that we knew we had something much more powerful than we expected, something that we feel plays a very big part in keeping our company culture healthy and vibrant for the future,” Rodriguez says.

The effectiveness of the TakeCare program has garnered Rodriguez recognition from many of his business partners, including health insurance provider Anthem.

“An important measure of any wellness program is how well it engages and excites employees. With TakeCare, David Rodriguez at Marriott has certainly hit the mark,” the company said in a statement. “TakeCare is an inspiring and sustainable program, and Anthem is extremely proud to be his partner.”

As much as the specific developments, Rodriguez is excited by the fact that the employees have felt empowered to make TakeCare their own and express the culture of the company in their own communities. That, of course, exposes individuals who might one day become a Marriott employee themselves to a program and philosophy that differentiates the company from other employers. Globally, the organization gets more than two million applications in a typical year, and then hires about seventy thousand people in that same span. The hundreds of thousands of associates who make up Marriott’s ranks have reported extreme satisfaction and happiness in their work—to the tune of a Legend Award from the Best Place to Work Institute for having been on the 100 Best Places list since the award’s inception. And a large part of that is because employees feel that the organization wants to know them personally and promote their well-being.

And no one knows that as well as Rodriguez. “I could have said nothing about my diagnosis and kept quiet about it, but in a way, I was given a gift,” he says. “I now have a story that I can use to inspire other people.” While going through treatment and chemotherapy, he used his recovery time to think about employee well-being and their sense of purpose to evaluate how he could best bring that to take care of people at Marriott.

After several months of chemotherapy, Rodriguez’s leukemia has been in remission since 2014. Thanks to the organization’s family environment and TakeCare, the healing never stopped. “We’ve created a sense of personal well-being, pride, and ownership in the company.  It results in a sense of gratitude and inspiration that leads employees to do the same for their customers and communities,” Rodriguez says. “We do whatever it takes, we go above and beyond, we innovate and spread the company culture to ensure our company stays healthy.”

Healing Puerto Rico

Marriott International’s TakeCare well-being program works in concert with the company’s social responsibility program, SERVE 360, to empower associates to bring caring and charitable fundraising to local communities.  Executive vice president and chief HR officer David Rodriguez has taken pride in the way employees have worked to change the world, and, as a Puerto Rican American, their efforts to provide aid to the island after Hurricane Maria in 2017 hit very close to home.

Rodriguez traveled to Puerto Rico with other members of the leadership team in order to connect with the hotel staffs on the island and to provide whatever assistance they could. “After the storm, I saw photos where Puerto Rico looked quite brown. Upon landing, it was amazing how green it was, how nature had recovered,” he recalls. “It reminded me that nature is able to recover much faster than human beings can.”

That said, Rodriguez and the Marriott team came to Puerto Rico looking to do anything they could for associates: they launched the company’s TakeCare Relief Fund, ran food banks, and brought electric generators, among other projects. In fact, those efforts extend year-round to anyone in the organization in need. “We delivered millions of dollars in aid to people in Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida, and all of the areas damaged by hurricanes,” Rodriguez explains.

But more importantly, even when Marriott employees were in difficult situations, they came to the assistance of others and put more positivity into the world. Rodriguez was particularly moved by one story of employees at a Puerto Rican Marriott hotel who came to the assistance of a children’s hospital in need of fuel, generators, and supplies. “Although they were not exactly sure how they would solve the problem, our local leaders just stepped in and said, ‘We’re going to make this happen,” Rodriguez says. “There were babies that needed emergency treatment, and they were saved by those efforts. That really is what Marriott is about.”

Photo by Cade Martin