Insights on Turnover, Employee Engagement and more from Restaurant Industry Leadership

Do you wonder what the most pressing issues are on a restaurant executive’s mind? During this year’s Global Best Practices Conference pre-conference workshop, the Workforce Symposium, Lou Kaucic (CEO & Founder, Coaches Collective International) chaired a panel with Jennifer Hartley (VP of PeopleWorks, Chili’s), Carin Stutz (President, McAlister’s Deli) and Lon Ledwith (EVP Operations, BJ’s Restaurants Inc.) Read on to see what keeps these leaders up at night, and how they’re addressing these concerns.


What are we missing on field management turnover? We wouldn’t tolerate these high levels within our own teams or at the home office.

— Employees have choices and you need to understand where they want to be and how to achieve it. Otherwise they’ll quit.
— We’re poaching from each other. Developing talent internally is vital, but during the recession we were focused on the middle of the P&L instead.
— We were more creative years go. We used things like 4-day work weeks. We haven’t done enough for our team members. We’ve just tried to cut labor costs so they have to work more.
— Managers weren’t looking as hard from 2008 – 2013. We got complacent. We have to engage them and know their goals.

What are your other thoughts about turnover in general?

— Millennials are being taught in school that they should only stay at a job for a few years.
— It’s imperative to offer rotational opportunities. It’s hard to do, though, since there is only so much money in the P&L. People are looking for experiences.
— It’s always good to retain great talent, but some turnover is good. Churn and movement will always be part of our industry and it also brings in new ideas. We measure how long a manager is at a restaurant, and we see a correlation between profitability and guest retention if a manager stays for over one year.

What would it be like if you had to find a new operator, CFO, or head of talent every 2 years?

— Your team is already doing this with their managers. Their managers know them and understand their scheduling needs. Then their manager leaves and they have to build a new relationship.
— We created this monster because District Managers are responsible for profit in their district. We yank the best operators out of a restaurant and leave a hole where they were. It’s less obvious than having a restaurant without a GM. Start to measure how long a manager is in a restaurant and you can influence profits and guest satisfaction.
— Don’t underestimate how upset your team members get when their managers are transferred.

Employee Engagement

How has the hourly workforce changed in the last 10 years?

— Things go from a small concern to a big priority extremely quickly. Today’s worker is communicating in the middle of their shift via text. You have to be plugged in and paying attention to what’s going on.
— Hourly workers that you’ve never met will call you out any time. Millennials use Glassdoor extensively, but Boomers don’t even know it exists. Stay up with technology, remember that speed matters, and attention spans are limited.

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How do you keep your fingers on the pulse besides employee engagement surveys?

— Stay plugged into social media.
— Each restaurant has its own blog.
— Talk to team members, and respond within 1 day to emails. Once employees know they can talk to you they don’t stop.
— Have the leadership team divide and conquer and hold town halls and focus groups in the field. Team members and managers need to understand what you’re working on at corporate, and corporate needs to understand what’s important to them. If you work at a large organization, it can take 3 months on the road to see everyone, but it’s worth it.
— People want to hear from their leaders, but what they really want is to see action. Listen and put some impactful action plans behind it.
— Black Box Intelligence (formerly TDn2K) has determined that turnover goes up if you do more than 2 engagement surveys per year. Instead of doing another survey, follow up on the action items you identified.
— After each shift, ask team members, “How was everything?” Don’t let your managers accept “not well” as an answer. Train your management team on how to develop and communicate a feedback system. Tim Horton’s uses an electronic white board for feedback, but you can also implement a low tech solution.
— Ask yourself how you can motivate the dishwasher.

Regulatory Changes

How are you dealing with the new FLSA exempt standards?

— We’re moving AMs to hourly over the next few months.
— We’re reviewing job descriptions.
— We’re adopting the California exemption rules, which require that 50% or more of an employee’s time must be spent doing exempt duties.
— We’re experimenting with a 4-day workweek, and are considering renting stations like nail salons.

Culture and Brand Issues

What cultural trend worries you the most when you think about growing your brand or your company?

— It’s arrogant for chains to tell people how to eat (GMOs, additives, etc.)
— Our #1 concern is how the NLRB’s joint employer ruling will potentially change franchise relationships.
— The size of our business. It’s hard to feel small again. We want intimacy at work so our employees know they are being heard and valued.
— It’s all about serving an individual with unique tastes. We have to be so good at changing what we do to fit our customers. It’s expensive, though. We have to consider how many items are on the menu and how easy it is to change them. My advice is to give the team the authority to make changes, including prices, to make the sale.

1f8e46dLiz D’Aloia is the founder of HR Virtuoso, a mobile recruiting company based in Dallas, TX. She is an HR professional, employment attorney, speaker, and blogger. Prior to launching HR Virtuoso Liz worked at national transportation companies and at a global retailer. Connect with Liz on LinkedIn and follow her at @hrvirtuoso.