In an industry beset chronically by high rates of worker turnover and criticisms of service, knowing how to pick the best job candidate remains a skill that is rarely taught to managers, according to chain veteran-turned-independent operator Phil Martin.
“Our biggest challenge when I was in the corporate world was training managers how to hire,” said Martin, who made the switch to ownership of Mainstreet Grill  in Deland, Fla., two years ago. When it comes to staff hiring skills, “no one teaches that,” he said. “We’ve all kind of learned it on our own. I always felt the biggest weakness we had in operations was teaching managers how to screen applicants.”
To improve hiring decisions, restaurant owners and operators now are turning to more behavioral testing of candidates for hourly jobs, a task made easier and more affordable by the Internet. A variety of programs offer restaurants the ability to quickly assess the personality and behavior of a job candidate to determine if the person would fit well in an organization. Hiring right can improve retention and save money, operators say.
Coffee Beanery franchisees who have been using an online behavioral test have cut their hourly employee turnover rates in half, said JoAnne Shaw, president and chief executive of The Coffee Beanery Ltd., a Flushing, Mich.-based chain of more than 200 coffeehouses.
“It really saves time and money for the franchisees,” Shaw said. “It gives them a real strong, accurate evaluation of the characteristics of that particular candidate. They are getting the best possible people to hire.”
The Coffee Beanery franchisees and Martin are among several operators using an online program called TraitSet, which was developed by HRgems Inc., a human resources consulting firm in Naples, Fla. TraitSet puts candidates through multiple-choice tests that reveal their behavioral traits—such as their likelihood to show up for work, care about customers and not lie or steal.
“We hire people for their skills, but we fire them for their behavior,” said HRgems president Dan Longton. “What we’re looking for is a service attitude. We want to hire for right behavior.”
CorVirtus, a Colorado Springs, Colo., human resources consulting firm, also has recently launched an online program for hourly workers to help managers decipher if the applicant possesses “the hospitality gene.” The assessment identifies a job seeker’s passion for taking care of people. The firm reported that candidates who pass the test are three times more likely to exhibit a desire to please others.
Web-based programs and tests that can use a point-of-sales computer make it easier for operators to test hourly job candidates. With most programs, test results are immediate and give hiring managers directions on whether to continue with an interview.
Hourly turnover at the Mainstreet Grill is down 50 percent since it started using the TraitSet program, Martin said. But its biggest influence has been showing his managers how to hire, what to look for and to treat the hiring process more seriously. Often hiring decisions are made quickly because there is a need, Martin said.
“Anybody can sell themselves in 15 minutes or less,” he said. “I don’t know the stats, but I’ve seen interviews for hourly workers take less than five minutes. We spend more time with customers taking their food orders than we do hiring the person to cook their food.”
Using such tests allows companies to stop and assess just what the characteristics and behaviors are that they want to see in their employees, explained Pam Cowin, vice president of human resources for Shakey’s USA  in Alhambra, Calif.
The 53-year-old pizza parlor chain has been reinventing itself into a modern pizza and grill concept. Shakey’s, which once had more than 400 restaurants, is now down to around 50 but is on a path toward growth. For that it will need not just more employees, but the right employees, Cowin said.
Community involvement is a big part of Shakey’s identity, she said. Restaurants establish strong relationships in their communities, sponsoring school events and athletic teams. Employees need to be community-minded.
“We cannot afford to hire someone who would like a job,” Cowin said. “We need to hire someone who is a champion for the community, [people] who are leaders in their community and the only way to get at that is with TraitSet. It identifies a profile; we can interview against that profile. Then we can train to this profile and evaluate performances to this profile and promote to this profile.”
An assessment test is just one tool in a restaurant’s recruiting strategy, Martin said. The culture of the restaurant is also critical.
“You have to have a culture of treating people with dignity and respect,” he said. “[Online testing] stopped our managers in their tracks. They no longer allow people to just walk in the door, fill out a sheet of paper with their name and phone number to get a job. They take it more seriously. They understand the importance of quality hiring, how it impacts service, retention and turnover. We want people with integrity, who can be a part of the team.”