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Staff: Peace Plan

Stop the back-of-the-house bickering.

What do you get when you mix sharp objects, hot flames and tight quarters with time-pressured cooks and a flurry of dupes? You get a typical night in a restaurant kitchen—and a perfect place for fights to start among stressed-out staff.

Before it starts

With more than three decades in the business, restaurateur Tommaso Verdillo says he’s learned that the first step in preventing conflict is hiring the right people. “We can’t have any duffers,” insists the chef/owner of Tommaso’s in Brooklyn, New York. “Everyone has to carry their weight, otherwise resentments build up.” Also, don’t be an absentee operator. “Because I’m here all the time, I can spot conflicts when they’re brewing and intervene early,” says Verdillo.

At New World Home Cooking in Woodstock, New York, chef/owner Ric Orlando and his wife Liz keep the peace at the workplace by encouraging multi-tasking. Orlando says many of his servers start as bussers and then work as food runners, sometimes even doing shifts on the cold line. “We always work on getting our employees to recognize each other’s task load.”

There’s a fight!

First I separate them,” explains executive chef Lindsay Autry of the Lazy Goat restaurant in Greenville, South Carolina. “Then I firmly remind everyone involved that we’re here to do a job; later we can talk it out. I also give them a break, time to calm down.

That’s a smart approach, says Christiana Wall, a New York-based social worker and state-certified mediator. “First you want to freeze the action,” she instructs. “Separate the parties and then stabilize the situation. Those who intervene also really need to keep their cool.” To help diminish anger on both sides, Wall recommends that managers first confront the situation in a way that validates the feelings of those involved. “Tell them both that you understand there is something really important going on here.

But don’t try to deal with the cause of the conflict immediately. “Intense anger actually lowers a person’s IQ by a significant amount,” she explains, “so they are much less able to problem-solve in the heat of the moment.

Getting along

Beth Veneto, the head baker and owner of Ginger Betty’s specialty bakery and café in Quincy, Massachusetts, says she has no patience for problem employees, but admits she learned a lesson recently from a manager. Instead of firing somebody, one of her managers simply gave the contentious employee more positive feedback for good work and the bad behavior stopped.

[The manager] was able to bring out the best in this employee by being patient and sensitive,” says Veneto. “It’s essential, when trying to resolve a conflict, to have the needs of both parties heard equally,” says Wall. Ground rules in mediation are also important: listening without interrupting and actively problem solving—not just griping. “The goal is to create a win-win situation.

The encouraging news, Wall adds, is that “most people want to get in a space where they’re contributing to another’s well-being. Being valiant feels really good.

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