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Jim Sullivan

Re-recruit your team every shift

Jim Sullivan discusses reducing turnover and improving employee tenure in restaurants. 

Leaders learn the hard way that having a bad reputation as a place to work is like a hangover. It takes a while to get rid of and makes everything else suffer.

— Jim Buelt

I have written many times about making hiring the most important decision in your business. I’ve shared best practices from the industry’s best brands relative to sourcing, hiring and developing the best talent. A lot of that effort and those ideas have centered on recruiting good people and then developing them into great ones.

But somewhere between recruiting and retention lies the process of “re-recruiting.” That means keeping your “A” players engaged, appreciated and energized every day. It’s done by showing appreciation and letting them know why their work, specifically, matters.

Outstanding team members are high maintenance in that they expect focus, goals, guidance, appreciation and recognition. Focus and goal setting seem to be naturally abundant in the supervisory skill sets of foodservice managers, but appreciation, encouragement and recognition are in a little bit shorter supply. Why?

There are both developmental and financial reasons. Unit managers are trained and expected to focus first on tangible goals aligned to measurables such as same-store sales, customer service scores, labor hours, food costs, repair and maintenance expenses, marketing dollars, operating margins, training costs, and sales per labor hour. These line items are finite and accruable — subject to multiplication, subtraction or division and therefore easily columned and scrutinized in a profit and loss statement. Managers are salaried and bonused on improving those numbers, so naturally, that’s what they will focus on. What you reinforce is what you get.

Not so easy to measure and delineate is the importance and ROI of employee encouragement, appreciation, recognition and development. The value of those things lies not in what it costs a company to address them, but what it will cost a company if it doesn’t. This logic is contrary to the chief financial officer mind-set, which is why accountants tend to be dismissive of recognition, appreciation and training by labeling them as “soft skills,” implying their worth is hard to measure. Deserved or not, this explains why training and development programs appear first on the chopping block in tough economies. What you don’t reinforce is what you lose.

Here’s where it all gets a bit tricky. Hourly team members are not focused on the same things their managers are. Managers focus on the big picture; hourly crews work solely in the nitty-gritty. That’s where the big disconnect occurs. Managers can achieve self-worth, relevance and fulfillment by attaining numbers and hitting targeted goals. But how do our servers, cooks, dishwashers, hosts and bussers find fulfillment at their jobs? What did they make today: a dollar or a difference? Do managers ever help them make that distinction?  

It’s challenging for managers to motivate great employees to stay, since they’re focused on different things: targets and relevance. Here’s where the concept of re-recruiting may offer a solution. Show the same concern, energy and appreciation for your “A” players daily that you normally reserve for the new team members you’ve just hired.

The two components of re-recruitment

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Re-recruiting has two components. One occurs daily, the other quarterly or biannually. The longer-term stage centers on extending the tenure of each position as opposed to simply measuring turnover. If you know the average tenure of every single position in your restaurant — “How long have our grill cooks, servers and dishwashers stayed with us, on average, over the last five years?” — you now have measurable insight on where to apply recognition, development or advancement measures to extend that tenure.

For instance, if my dishwashers tended to leave after an average tenure of 28 months, I’d apply formal training, recognition or pay raises at 12-month, 18-month and 24-month intervals to see if I could extend that tenure to an average of 36 months or more. Tenure tells you more than turnover does. But you can’t manage it if you don’t measure it.

“What are you still doing here?! Get off the clock! Go! No wonder our labor costs are through the roof!”

How many times have you or your managers said something like that to an hourly employee at the end of his or her shift? Never? Sometimes? Often? What if you took that moment instead to tell that team member what he or she achieved that day, how it aligns with the customer’s expectations and how much you appreciate his or her efforts? You re-recruit with recognition in a brief, post-shift one-on-one meeting right before the employee clocks out. Team members want to know that they contributed — that their roles have value, relevance, worth.

Patrick Lencioni, in his 2007 book, “The Three Signs of a Miserable Job,” suggested that Anonymity, Irrelevance and Immeasurement are the Holy Trinity of job dissatisfaction and turnover.

Anonymity is resolved by taking a genuine interest in your people — getting to know their interests, their passions.

Irrelevance is counteracted by making certain that each team member understands “who they are helping and how they are helping” every single shift. What problem are they individually and collectively solving? By sharing this insight with your team members at the end of their shifts, it demonstrates their value to you, your customers, your brand and your business.

Immeasurement is an “employee’s lack of a clear means of assessing his or her progress or success on the job,” according to Lencioni. Failing to link measurement to relevance frustrates employees who wonder why the most important parts of their jobs aren’t being measured or recognized. Can you imagine a basketball, baseball or soccer game in which no one keeps score and the coach eyes only his or her own performance review during the game? How would players on those teams feel? Would the best ones search out other teams with scoreboards and more appreciative coaches? In a heartbeat.

So tell your dishwasher how those clean trays or glasses allowed a record lunch shift full of happy customers to occur. Let the grill cooks know how only two mistakes on your busiest night was a team best for fewest errors and also happiest guests. Thank a server with sincerity and graciousness — not sarcasm — for being on time, and show appreciation for the dessert and appetizer sales she made. And teach your junior managers a lifelong lesson by your example. 

Be gracious, show gratitude, and don’t forget: Your customer is anyone who isn’t you. 

Jim Sullivan’s best-selling new book, “Fundamentals: 9 Ways to Be Brilliant at the New Basics,” is available at Amazon and bookstores nationwide. Get his online training catalog, apps and insights at

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