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13 smart recruiting and retention strategies

1. Select the right person in the first place. Today’s hiring mistakes are tomorrow’s turnovers. Clearly define the results you expect and the talent you need. I know it’s easy to say and hard to do, but don’t lower your standards. Make it a privilege to join your team. Don’t hire from desperation, especially new crew or managers. The fact is that first rate people hire first rate people. But “second rate” people hire fourth rate people.

2. Recruiting is branding. So is retention. The HR team should see itself as part of the operations team. After all, the people you hire are the people who attract and retain your customers—or fail to. And customers like to be around people they like and who are like themselves. HR departments need a marketing mindset in their toolkit. After all, a restaurant brand today isn’t just what the customer experiences, it’s everything that a company’s employees do to acquire and maintain internal customers.

3. Assemble Cross-Functional Retention Committees. Get a mix of managers, servers, kitchen crew, and hosts together to plot strategy and tactics for your retention and recruiting goals, and how you’ll track and measure them. The power of purpose is an awesome tool. And none of us are as smart as all of us.

4. Offer new managers/ recruits retention bonuses instead of signing bonuses. While I realize the current trend is to reward upfront, I think that the backend bonus has better payoff potential for both the house and the manager. If you don’t agree, at least consider doing both.

5. Ask good new hires who they’d recruit from their old company. “If you have a lot of great employees in your kitchen and your dining room and you’re not asking them who else they know, you’re missing the boat,” says John Ryan, GM of the Old Chicago in Apple Valley, MN. High-performers love working (and know) with other high-performers.

6. Practice random acts of retention and recognition. Quick: How many of you reading this right now feel over-appreciated by your company? Raise your hands. High-performers crave recognition and respect. Recruiting doesn’t stop when people get hired.

7. Measure, celebrate and reward the managers who attract and retain the best people. Measure what matters and do it publicly. Post your quarterly retention rates in the kitchen, not hidden in the manager’s office. How do you calculate turnover? Rob Gage, Director of Training for Pacific Coast Restaurants in Portland, Ore offers this advice: “Start with total terminations (quits and 86s) and then back out any inter-store or interdepartmental transfers. Divide that number into the employee base each quarter. As you advance from the first quarter of the year to the next, take a rolling average of the employee base for the continuing year to date turnover calculations. This seems to help offset the impact of seasonal hiring in some of the restaurants.”

8. Go from Coincidence to Continuous hiring. A recent Fast Company article said: “Companies that practice continuous hiring do things differently from other companies. In their approach to recruitment, they try to mirror how they approach the rest of their business. They say about the hiring process what they say about each of their products: ‘We have to make it exciting, we have to make it fun, we have to make it fast—and we have to keep innovating all the time.’ ” How many of us approach recruiting with the same zeal we view marketing, service or guest complaints?

9. Prune your “deadwood.” High-performers hate working with low performers. Get rid of the deadwood on your team that anger your customers and drive away excellent performers. Some turnover (low performers) is good. It’s not the people you fire who make your life miserable, it’s the people you don’t fire!

10. Be where the target audience is. Think like a marketer. Where does your target audience hang out? Malls, movie theaters, concerts, sporting events? Can you buy, rent or lease a recruiting table in those locations? Should you be promoting employment instead of dining in the movie theater ads prior to the coming attractions? If you have a recruiting website, shouldn’t all your current employees own t-shirts promoting the URL on the back and be wearing them at public events, like restaurant trade shows and college football and basketball games?

11. Train new managers to spot great performers. A restaurant manager today has to be the business equivalent of an NFL talent Scout. Just because your supervisors can successfully manage a busy shift, a full payroll and a monthly P&L doesn’t mean they know how to attract and retain talented performers. Our HR departments must work closely with our training departments to educate managers on what to look for when they’re interviewing or experiencing good service by an employee in another business.

12. Stay in touch with talented people who leave and use them as recruiting resources. They’ve already “bought” your product and presumably liked it. Sometimes the best place to find a helping hand is at the end of your arm.

13. Make Hiring THE Most Important Decision. Everytime you hire someone, you’re adding to your marketing team. When a position opens on your team, determine who would best fill it by asking yourself: “How well do I want this job done?” instead of “What position do I have open?”

I’ve said it for years, and I’ll say it again: the human architecture of a foodservice
operation is its most critical asset. Remind your managers and crew that without you, there’s no us.

Jim Sullivan is CEO of, and is a popular speaker at foodservice conferences worldwide. Learn more tips on managing employees by visiting Sullivision on NRN.

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