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Forget the robots: It’s still a people business VCG/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Forget the robots: It’s still a people business

Rethink all aspects of hiring and training to address the turnover crisis

Jim Sullivan is a popular keynote speaker at leadership, franchisee and GM conferences worldwide. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News. 

“Retention is not a good measure of team-building success; having a great person in every single position on the team is the best measure.”— Patty McCord, author, Powerless

In the last six months I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of designing and delivering  multiunit leadership development workshops for area managers and franchisees at brands like Texas Roadhouse, Chipotle, IHOP, Wendy’s, Panera Bread, Qdoba, BJ’s, Applebee’s, Dunkin’ and many others. Based on the pre-workshop research we conduct and the post-workshop feedback I’ve received while working with these leaders, I’ve gained unique insight into what the best companies are doing in 2019 to constantly improve their game, consistently enhance the guest experience, and creatively build talent density in their restaurants. I’d like to share some of that insight here.

Given that foodservice hourly employee turnover now hovers around 170% annually, it’s little surprise that “finding employees” or “employee retention” ranks at or near the top of the key concerns of most operators. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: We have a turnover crisis not a labor crisis, and we cannot and will not solve this challenge with the same thinking and approach that caused the crisis in the first place.

The we way we hire, staff, train and develop our teams has to change if we want to improve our people, performance, and profitability. This means a wholesale rethinking of how we hire, train, and develop teams and leaders. We are at a crisis stage; hourly turnover north of 150% and management turnover north of 75% is simply untenable, and the rise of the robots will not save you. Only fresh thinking and smart action can.

Now is the perfect time to challenge every element of the HR systems, hiring and development process we have in place because it’s roots are in a 1990s workplace and labor force that no longer exists and is obviously no longer effective.

As the old phrase goes: if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got. Here are four strategies to consider:

1. Put a premium on fit. The goal of great leadership is to build your own replacement. Create a team so good that they can carry on without you. Start by ridding the team of deadwood, the people who are holding you back. (Yes, some turnover is good). Now reassess how you hire, where you find good people, and the kinds of questions you ask; put a premium on fit. Make sure that anyone doing the hiring is fully cognizant of the screening tools and hiring standards you have in place and how your business works.

The next step is to develop and deploy an onboarding process that is fun, deliberate, and effective. Ask your current team members what that should look like. And finally, make certain your workplace and culture is chockablock-full of the seven things that keep high-performers engaged and onboard: dignity, equity, care, respect, fairness, recognition, and modern tools.

2. Manage the people process like you manage the product process. If we managed our people the same way we managed our products, a distinctly different approach emerges. In fact, developing a new menu item is analogous to developing a new way of sourcing, hiring and developing new team members.

You’d begin by assembling a unique “recipe” based on best demonstrated people practices across the industry, and not simply a different version of what’s already on your HR “menu.”

Next, managing the people process like you manage the product process means you’d both test the new system with all of your internal customers — current employees, HR team, managers, former employees — and solicit their feedback.

You’d then rollout the new people process “recipe” with a few select stores or franchisees and make any necessary adjustments before rolling it out regionally or systemwide. You’d periodically make any necessary adjustments relative to hiring, training, developing before making it a permanent people process “menu item.” You’d find ways to constantly improve the presentation, packaging, and marketing of the “product.”

The majority of food service operations don’t align the people development process to the same rigorous methods they use for a new appetizer or dessert menu rollout. They should.
3. No train, no gain. The critical skill to work on first with your leadership team and hourly crew is confidence, and then competence. Why? Because insecure, inexperienced and indecisive managers don’t develop their people, they replace them. And so employee churn rises even higher.

The three key measurements you need to assess relative to people development are:  1) detailing exactly what you’re doing to improve people skills and how much time you’re spending, 2) how statistically valid and empirically effective that development is, and 3) how satisfied you are with how quickly and effectively people are learning and using what they’ve learned to enhance the guest experience.

Remember, you don’t want your people to simply “know” things, you want them to do things. Have a bias for action.

4. Measure tenure not just turnover. A key metric that most operators fail to track in their restaurants is tenure, or the average length of time people tend to stay in each position in your restaurant. If you knew the amount of time your dishwashers, prep cooks, hosts, servers, bartenders or managers stay in that role, you can implement strategies to extend that tenure like bonuses, swag, or any unexpected rewards for jobs well done.

In addition, knowing and tracking your tenure numbers allows you to redefine the market value of the work that person does for you in the time frame in which it will be done. Given that insight, some dishwashers or hosts may be deserving of twice the pay of others based on their performance, lack of callouts and impact on cleanliness, throughput, and the guest experience. Instead of “What position is open?” ask “How well do I want that job done?”

Intentional resolve is the answer to the question of “How do we solve the turnover crisis?” If our industry and associations applied the same focused intent and resources to solve this issue as we did with food safety a generation ago, we’d solve it.  Instead, we’re spinning our wheels and distracted by clones, robots and third-party delivery while our future — our people — are being ignored by our industry and stolen by others. When is too late too late?

Jim Sullivan is a bestselling author and popular speaker at Leadership Conferences worldwide. His clients include Walt Disney Company, Starbucks, Panera Bread, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. You can get his books, videos or seminar insight at 

TAGS: Operations
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