Gordon Biersch tailors company practices to Gen Y needs

Management styles were different 30 years ago, when Robert Werk started out as a busboy in the restaurant industry. The demanding, tough-guy manager who worked six days a week wouldn’t survive long among today’s Generation Y employees, said Werk, who now is chief operating officer of the Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant Group, the Chattanooga, Tenn.-based multiconcept operator of 37 restaurants, including the namesake Gordon Biersch brewpubs and Big River Grille & Brewing Works.

Nearly 70 percent of the industry’s workforce is age 28 or younger, Werk estimated. Gordon Biersch executives started studying Gen Y workers in earnest almost two years ago. After a lot of listening, surveys and meetings, the company improved some of its practices regarding how it manages its young workforce. It adopted an online scheduling program that allows employees to use their cell phones or the Internet to update or change their schedules. More attention from corporate managers and better training has led to a nearly 12-percent drop in hourly turnover.

What did you learn from your research into Gen Y employees?

They want to see our company doing charity work. That was very important to them. They wanted to have an impact in terms of training. Their thinking was they do the job every day—they can add value to it to make it better.

How did you follow up on that?

Corporate trainers did training calls with trainers on an ongoing basis. We had corporate-level training mangers listening and interacting with hourly staff.

Sounds like you did a lot of listening to this age group.

We did surveys and round tables. Regional managers went in and had meetings for anyone who wanted to come—hourly only, no store-level managers. They listened to what is going on, what regional managers can do to improve things that may or may not be getting done.

But how are Gen Y employees different?

They are a bit more difficult than the previous generation. They want to be asked their opinion or they will tell you their opinion, and they want you to act on it. They can be higher performers, but they are higher-maintenance than typical. But if they are happy, they are very high performers.