Dealing with Staff Turnover

If you are finding the job market difficult, perhaps you should take a step back and have a look at why you need to replace staff in the first place? The issue here is staff turnover. Some hospitality operators seem to run the modern equivalent of concentration camps and then wonder why they can’t hang on to people for very long.

The whole subject came into sharp focus recently when I called for the payroll records of a restaurant and discovered that their kitchen had turned over 52 staff in the preceding twelve months. I had a fit. This meant the Chefs were spending most of their time recruiting and settling new staff into their positions, rather than concentrating on what they were really there for. It also explained an eye wateringly high wage cost in that kitchen.

Why was this happening? When we delved into it there were several reasons; and all of them were preventable.

The first thing we found was that they were recruiting on 10 minute chats and quick trials without any consideration for what the job applicants were looking for or how long they intended to stay. In other words, they were recruiting to satisfy their own needs (for staff, in desperation) without considering the needs of the job applicants. Many of the recruits were finding that the jobs were not what they expected and were bailing just after they had been trained. This is like tearing-up hundred dollar bills in the street.

Secondly, the standard of training and leadership in the kitchen was appalling. New staff were thrown into jobs without proper instruction and then screamed at by the senior Chefs. When I questioned this, the response was disquieting: ‘It’s the nature of commercial kitchens; it’s just the way it is’. Fortunately, forty years in hospitality and working with many calm, professional chefs gave me the ammunition to counter this.

This behaviour was a symptom of a problem, and not the root problem itself. Those Chefs were struggling to do a job they hadn’t been trained to do. Like most Chefs they had been trained to cook, and not to recruit, train and lead. In other words that had been accepted into job roles they were ill equipped to handle and in frustration and desperation they resorted to quite inappropriate (and quite illegal) methods of getting the job done.

Moving on, the rostering of staff was unbelievably punishing due to chronic short staffing (because of the high staff turnover), with 12 hour shifts and 70 hour working weeks the norm. To compound this, the rosters were only being posted two or three days ahead, which completely shattered any chance for the staff to plan their recreational activities, or commit to future social events.

We also found that some staff were left doing the most mind-numbing jobs — like picking herbs — for extended periods of time without rotation to other jobs in order to relieve the tedium. You don’t need to do a four year apprenticeship to qualify to pick herbs for two months on end.

We also found a disturbing prevalence of racist and sexist bastardisation of the migrant and female staff by the ordinary staff themselves. This was regarded with amusement by the senior Chefs who took the attitude that you had to learn to take that kind of treatment if you wanted to work in a commercial kitchen.

Inevitably, many staff were not prepared to accept all this for $25 per hour. Funny about that; considering most of the staff who had quit were of Gens Y and Z, and had been educated to expect a work life balance.  This kind of management was always going to end in tears.

How did we find out about all this without camping in the kitchen full time? It’s easy — we initiated one of the key control systems that should be present in any business. We interviewed all staff (exit interviews) who resigned and ascertained their reasons for leaving and then set-out to systematically eliminate all the issues that were presenting themselves. This involved counselling the senior staff, replacing some, introducing proper recruitment, training and leadership procedures and giving the existing staff a secure forum where they could air their grievances without to management fear of repercussions.

The important thing to recognise is that to maintain high standards and profitable operation you need stable staff. All your staff view their job from their own perspective, and it’s their perception of the job that will determine if they will stay or go. What you think is fair and reasonable is irrelevant.

The days are gone where we can accept punishing leadership, yet it is still prevalent in many parts of this industry. You may not think this is you, but have a look at your staff turnover, if it is high there have to be reasons. Why can other businesses have stable staff and you can’t?

If you have high turnover, do something about it. I recommend you interview all your junior staff at regular intervals to gauge their perceptions, and also exit interview all staff who resign and look for patterns of negative comment. Then act on what you discover.