7 ways to win the war on talent

howard behar

Recruitment and retention are two of the top five challenges for restaurateurs, rising above food costs in this year’s operator survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association. The findings were revealed by Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the NRA’s research and knowledge group, during a session at this week’s Restaurant Leadership Conference, where Riehle and several other presenters urged attendees to gear up for battle in the war for talent. The way to win: build a strong workplace culture.

  1. “If you’re going to have more than one unit, you have to think of yourself as a sports franchise and establish a culture that attracts talent.” Chip Conley, head of global hospitality for Airbnb, attributed that quote to restaurateur Michael Mina, and during an RLC general session, sketched out a strategy for achieving that culture. Over the course of his hospitality career, Conley developed a pyramid model based on psychologist Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: survive, succeed, transform. At the bottom is money—the basic tool employees need for survival; but a winning culture must satisfy emotional needs as well. Recognition motivates employees to succeed, and instilling meaning in people transforms a job into a calling, he said. “Most employees don’t leave restaurant jobs because of money, they leave because of the culture,” Conley told attendees.
  2. Hire for attitude, not for aptitude, Conley advised. Employees can always be trained on the job, but if they don’t bring the right attitude to the workplace, they ruin the culture.
  3. “How do you foster culture?” former Starbucks president Howard Behar asked rhetorically at RLC’s opening general session. It’s not about putting posters in the break room that tell employees to “be nice, be fast, be clean.” “That’s dehumanizing,” said Behar. “Be human” is what companies should be pushing—that’s inspiring.
  4. Use technology to create a robust recruitment and referral network. In a session titled “There’s a New War for Talent: Are You Prepared to Win It?” presenter Anthony Lye said only 7 percent of applicants come from job boards, while more than 50 percent come from referrals. Scheduling apps can do more than accommodate shift changes; they can be used to post jobs and accept team member referrals through text and Twitter. “Don’t pay the job boards, pay employees for referrals,” said Lye.
  5. Instead of fighting for talent, band together with other restaurants to create pools of shared employees. This not only allows companies to find candidates with specific skill sets from a bigger pool, it gives job seekers more “gig-based opportunities”—seasonal and part-time work—for better work-life balance, Lye said. Many millennial and Gen Z workers, the bulk of the restaurant industry workforce, are seeking gigs rather than permanent jobs, said Lye.
  6. Establish an intranet for employee recognition. Smashburger created the Smash Connection to showcase achievements of its team members, CMO Josh Kern said during an interview. “It gives employees from one location an easy way to congratulate teams at other locations on their accomplishments.”
  7. Caribou Coffee also strengthens its culture through employee recognition, said Karen McBride, senior vice president of culture and development. The company built an online recognition site where employees could learn how to be recognized and how to recognize others for doing a great job. “Follow-up research found that employees who are given recognition perform better, and that stores that have a manager who gives frequent recognition performed better than others,” McBride said. To keep the momentum going, Caribou rewards managers who are best at engaging their teams.

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