How to reduce employee turnover in your restaurant

Written by Giada Pezzini | 07 August 2019

How to reduce employee turnover in your restaurant

5,864 US dollars. That’s how much every single employee that leaves your restaurant costs you, according to an estimate by the Center for Hospitality Research at Cornell that accounts for all expenses associated with replacing a staff member – recruiting, training, and lost productivity. What this estimate doesn’t factor in is the huge operational nightmare that finding new staff often entails.

With a well-known, long-lasting staff shortage problem in the industry, it’s more important than ever that restaurateurs develop effective employee retention strategies.

Haven’t created yours yet? Here are five key elements you must include.

A positive culture

A weak, or downright bad, company culture can lead you to losing your best workers. So how do you create a positive company culture – one that will make staff want to stick around?

  1. Don’t just talk about it – live it. To create a good culture it’s not enough to include positive values such as honesty and respect in your company handbook. The way people speak to each other day to day, how superiors deal with problems, what behaviors are welcome and which ones are not tolerated – that’s what really marks the difference between a positive work environment and a poisonous one. Make your culture concrete, and make sure your whole staff lives by it, all the time – with no exceptions.
  2. Stop bad behavior immediately. Fix cracks as they happen. Are people being rude or inappropriate? Talk to them immediately, and make sure everyone knows what is, and isn’t, accepted. If you are employing people that can’t, or won’t, fit with your company culture, then you need to decide what matters most – them, or your business.
  3. Stand by your people. Create a friendly, supportive environment, where problems are quickly solved. Tough shift? Give the employee an extra break. Rude customer? Let your staff member know what they did right, and if they need it, give them a moment to relax and get their smile back. Show you care about your staff’s wellbeing. They will feel more invested in your business, and work harder to make it succeed.

Opportunities for growth

One of the best ways to lose your most competent and hard-working employees is to prevent them from shining, or advancing in their career.

Here are some ways to make your employees feel that their hard work matters, and it’s not going unnoticed:

Create a recognition program. According to a recent study from OfficeTeam, 66 percent of employees would “likely leave their job if they didn’t feel appreciated”. The percentage is even higher among younger staff members. An official program ensures you acknowledge goals and achievements in a fair and timely manner. Cash incentives are always a welcome reward – but even a simple gesture of public recognition can boost job satisfaction.

Give your staff the chance to display their abilities. Customer experience-focused companies like Ritz-Carlton and Alaska Airlines empower all their employees, from the baggage handlers to the service agents, to waive fees, give refunds, and generally go the extra mile to help a customer in need – all without having to ask for permission to a supervisor. The idea behind this is simple: if you give your employees the freedom to fix a situation any way they think is right, your customers will be happy – and you will know if you have a customer service superstar in your team.

Capitalize on their strengths. Are you putting people in roles that fit with their abilities? Perhaps Eliza, who is very precise and has a knack for numbers, should be the one in charge of inventory, even if Marek has been here longer, and he is the restaurant manager. And why not take advantage of the knowledge Louis gained at the kitchen safety course he attended at his previous workplace? Placing people in positions that fit their strengths is a win-win: they are happier – and you benefit from their skills.

Create opportunities for advancement. Promoting from within makes a lot of sense. You hire someone whose abilities are proven, and you can slash training costs. On top of that, creating internal growth prospects can be a great incentive for employees to stick around. Seasoned staff moving up can also help create, and spread, the right culture. “When you start at entry level and move up, you really develop a loyalty to the business,” says Elana Hobson, who started as a part-time fry cook at Jack in the Box 40 years ago, and is now senior vice president of operations at the quick service chain.

Life-work balance

Restaurant jobs are notoriously stressful. Long hours, hectic shifts, having to deal with hungry customers – all of these factors contribute to a high risk of employee exhaustion. To avoid losing your best staff to burnout, the so-called largest occupational hazard of our century, it is important to maintain a healthy life-work balance. Help insure that your people have time to disconnect and relax, so they can come at work well rested:

  • Be flexible. An employee might need to take a few evenings off to prepare for an important exam; another may find out at the last minute that the babysitter that was supposed to mind his sick child can’t make it. In these cases, it pays off to show flexibility and understanding.
  • Reach out. Does a staff member look tired or short-tempered? Talk to them. You may uncover unexpected truths – for example, an employee who is stressed because of financial problems might be looking to get more hours.
  • Maintain a clear overview. If you manage your roster using Excel files (or worse yet, paper records), you may be unable to see which of your employees are overworked, or which shifts are under- or over-staffed. Invest in workforce management tools that provide you with a clear overview of your staffing and labor costs, and which enable you to create fair rosters, and easily share them with your workforce.

Continuous training

A few months ago, in the Netherlands, I visited a restaurant specialized in local dishes. When I asked what type of meat was in their signature meatballs, the waitress shrugged. “I am not sure – meat”, she replied. I asked if the meatballs were good. Her answer? “I don’t know, I have never tried them”.

Training should be treated as a continuous process throughout your employees’ career. Good training won’t only help your employees perform better; it will also make them feel happier and more confident in their work. According to research by CHART, hospitality businesses that spend 5% or more of their budget on training experience 23% less staff turnover.

To ensure high-quality and effective training,

  • Set clear and thorough rules for your onboarding process. For example, you could prepare a week one checklist to distribute to new employees, and then follow up with monthly checklists detailing procedures and expectations during the first few months in the job.
  • Have regular meetings to keep your front of house staff up-to-date with changes in the menu. Give them the chance to taste new dishes, so they can give customers competent advice!
  • Share online and offline training opportunities with your staff.
  • Once an employee has learned a new skill, don’t let it sit! Give them the opportunity to use it.

Open communication

You know how important clear communication is to maintain a positive environment. At the same time, it can be hard to make time to chat with your staff when you are busy juggling late deliveries, bills, and the dinner rush. A day goes by, then a month – and then, a highly valued employee is leaving after feeling bad at work for a while, and you never even realized there was anything wrong.

Keep the communication channel open by:

  • Scheduling one-on-one chats with each employee. Having planned check-ins once every few weeks enables you to pick up on problems or frustrations before they escalate.
  • Using official communication tools. It’s frustrating for employees to have to call multiple phone numbers and send messages on various social media pages to get confirmation of a holiday or shift request. The best workforce management systems include tools that facilitate clear, straightforward communication between staff and management. For example, LS Staff Management features an Employee Portal where users can view upcoming shifts, comment on registered hours, receive messages, accept or decline work requests, request to work on specific days, ask for shift changes or time off, and see their manager’s responses to these requests.
  • Conducting exit interviews when possible. You might uncover issues you need to solve: perhaps a shift manager is treating staff unfairly, or you need to update your kitchen facilities.

Employee retention may be one of the toughest challenges for operators in the already complex restaurant business. Not sure where to start? Begin by putting your people first with a positive, open, honest work environment. Your staff will pay you back by taking good care of your customers, and sticking by you.


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