I have the distinct impression that I’m at odds with most of my hospitality peers on one particular issue. There come a point in nearly every training course I present, where someone makes a comment along the lines of: ‘casual staff are inherently unstable; you always have a high turnover among them’. The ensuing debate seems to arouse passionate reactions.
I was trained by the fast food industry — 90% of our staff were casual. I was carefully schooled in the recruitment, training and supervision of casual staff as a part of my formal management training. I was a store manager who had been promoted to area manager and given responsibility for 12 large stores, employing around 700 casual staff. We were expected to keep our casual staff turnover below 30% per annum — or to put it another way, we were expected to keep our casual staff for three years.
We soon learned that there we had to be very careful with our recruitment and selection. Most applicants for casual work were either secondary or tertiary students. The staff we selected not only had to be able to do the job; they had to be stable. We found some young people were a bad bet right from the beginning, while others proved to be very productive and reliable.
Secondary students were a problem for a start. They usually quit their casual jobs when they finish high school or technical school. We found that secondary students were unlikely to stay for more than 18 months. They abandoned their casual jobs to either enter the full time workforce or commence tertiary study. If they found a full time job, they didn’t want to work extra hours, and if they went to college or university a high percentage moved away from home and our business. They cost a lot to train, so I preferred my store managers to fish in other waters.
University or college students were safer, and could be very stable if you made the right choices. Tertiary students can be divided into various sub-groups, according to their employment risk. First year students have a high dropout rate, especially in intensive courses such as law, medicine, science and engineering. If a casual employee bombs first year university, you can kiss them goodbye. We used to avoid employing people doing certain courses, and people with poor secondary school results. To make sure, we asked to see their school assessments and questioned them about their ambitions and career intentions when we interviewed them.
Fourth year tertiary students were also a problem. They were in a similar position to secondary students — most were one year employment prospects at best. By final year, a tertiary student usually has heavy study commitments and a blossoming social calendar. Our statistics led me to encourage my managers to keep away from them, as well.
Second and third year students were the ones I preferred. After surviving first year, they had a good chance of continuing their courses right through. To support their living and recreational expenses, they needed a steady income. If you didn’t spoil the relationship by treating them inappropriately, they often stayed the three remaining years of their course.
It helps if you make an attempt to understand student’s needs. The job you offer them is a means to an end, it is not their first priority — study takes precedence over the job. If you require them to work more than they can handle, they will leave. You don’t usually intend to overload them, but you find yourself short staffed and call on them to work extra shifts. If this goes on too long their study or their social lives suffer and you get the speech about ‘their grandmother dying and them having to leave.’
Their social life is just as important as their study. If you had a date with the partner of your dreams, how would you feel about a last minute roster change requiring you to work? We put our rosters up two weeks in advance, so the staff didn’t have to cancel arrangements at short notice. We also found it paid to be conscious of their sport and recreation needs. Some managers even did a Saturday night roster three months in advance, so the casual staff could plan their lives.
It also helped to hold them if we challenged their minds. Working in a production kitchen or serving customers can be mentally numbing if you are highly intelligent. The best managers involved their casuals in the business and gave them added responsibility — like doing the evening stock reconciliations, balancing the tills, or transferring the cash register sales information into the daily record ledger. The deal was simple: ‘work reliably and efficiently and we will look after your shifts and make work interesting.’
I had some great casual staff. One kid used to take such pride in his kitchen cleaning he polished the U-shaped pipe under the sink with Brasso. Others have fronted-up on their days off and asked to work for nothing because they were bored. I do not think casual staff are inherently uncommitted and unreliable; I’ve seen evidence first hand that proves the opposite.
I was never exposed to the concept that casual staff are unreliable until I became involved with the hotel and restaurant industry. Several of my clients have challenged me to put my management philosophies to the test and I have comfortably proved to them and myself what I always suspected — that casual staff turnover can be substantially reduced in any environment, if you are careful and know how to do it.
I feel much better now that I have got that off my chest . . .