Lately the focus has been on recruitment, but investing in retention practices can have a dramatic impact on staffing challenges.

The pandemic has left the restaurant industry in an unprecedented labor crisis, with widespread staffing shortages across every segment. According to the National Restaurant Association, 75 percent of operators say their restaurant is more than 10 percent below necessary staffing levels. Despite continuous recruiting efforts, higher starting wages, use of sign-on bonuses, and improved employee benefits, attracting talent is still the top concern for restaurants. 

While inbound efforts certainly need to continue, another way to alleviate the staffing shortage is by reducing the outbound flow of employees, also known as turnover. Even in an industry with historically high employee turnover, the severe impacts of COVID-19 have created an environment where turnover rates are trending in the wrong direction. According to Black Box Intelligence, turnover among hourly staff at full-service restaurants has increased from 102 percent in 2019 to 113 percent in 2021, a trend that is compounding the staffing shortage. With the cost of turnover averaging $1,869 per hourly employee, an 11 percent degradation in retention can have a dramatic financial impact. In addition, turnover negatively affects guest satisfaction due to poor service levels and also places a heavier burden on the rest of the team. 

How to reverse the trend

While it may seem like you’re being squeezed from both ends, there are some steps you can take to reverse the current staffing trend. Rather than focusing all of your energy on bringing in new team members, what if you focused more on retaining existing employees? Poor training is a major contributing factor for employees leaving restaurant organizations. When employees are not well trained, they are less successful in their jobs and have a harder time envisioning a future with the organization. 

Training can be used as an effective retention tool in three significant ways: As part of the employee’s onboarding during their first 90 days on the job, to equip team members with conflict resolution and harassment prevention techniques, and as part of an ongoing development program. Let’s explore each of these.

1. Onboarding: the first 90 days

Black Box Intelligence reports that 23 percent of newly hired restaurant employees never make it to their fourth month on the job. Those first 90 days are critical to establish a pattern of success for the new employee, which is nearly impossible to do with inadequate training. 

Conversely, a well-designed training program can be an effective way to improve retention during those crucial first few months. For example: 

  • After implementing a learning management system, Perkins Restaurant & Bakery reported a reversal in turnover trends within the first 30 days for new team members, despite a backdrop of continued low unemployment.
  • After deploying a new e-learning program, Granite City Food & Brewery saw voluntary turnover at both 30 and 90 days go down for nine straight months.
  • Donatos Pizza redesigned their onboarding training program for hourly associates and reduced turnover in the first 10 shifts by 42 percent.

E-learning, in particular, is a helpful tool for reducing early departures for several reasons. First, e-learning has been shown to reduce training time for both front-of-house and back-of house employees by up to 50 percent. If you can cut training time in half, the employee becomes competent faster and achieves success in their role sooner. Second, e-learning can be used to consistently train employees on the basics of a skill before they are handed over to an on-the-job trainer. When they start working with the trainer, they have more confidence in their abilities and are able to learn more effectively. Not only can they dive into the details sooner, but they are also able to ask better questions and retain the information longer. Last, with faster, better training, the employee is productive sooner and feels like part of the team rather than a burden, so they are more likely to stay.

2. Conflicts and harassment

The challenges of the pandemic have put restaurant workers on the front line of guest and staff confrontations. From enforcing mask mandates to dealing with service delays due to being short-staffed, restaurant employees have had to bear the brunt of increased guest complaints, verbal and physical conflicts, and even harassment. A report by Snagajob and Black Box Intelligence shows that restaurant workers put up with a lot:

  • 62 percent report emotional abuse/disrespect from customers
  • 49 percent report emotional abuse from managers
  • 15 percent report sexual harassment from customers, managers, or coworkers 

A strong anti-harassment and code of conduct policy coupled with proactive training can help employees deal with these challenges more effectively and have confidence that the company has their back. Online courses are readily available for guest complaint management, conflict resolution, harassment prevention, and workplace security. The advantage of using off-the-shelf courses for this kind of training is that providers can update them quickly to accommodate changing regulations or new trends in the industry.   

3. Ongoing development and career paths

One of the common reasons employees cite for leaving an organization is that they don’t see opportunity for advancement. By investing in learning and development from the very minute you onboard a new employee, you can stem the tide of turnover and positively impact your overall staffing levels. 

Even if a restaurant has invested in an outstanding onboarding program, if they stop learning and development after initial skill position training, they risk losing all of that investment. Unfortunately, turnover often comes from your high potential employees, who are exactly the people you want to retain. If they don’t see a clear path to promotion or perceive that promotion will be difficult, they are more likely to look elsewhere. 

These threats can be mitigated with an ongoing development program that creates a career path for high achievers. By laying out a logical progression from supervisor/shift lead to manager/assistant general manager to general manager, etc., you can help your best leaders envision their future advancement potential within your organization.

A positive byproduct: increased competence

By improving onboarding, equipping team members with skills to manage conflicts, and proactively enabling career paths, you can take positive steps to survive the staffing crisis. There really is no downside to improving your learning and development programs. While the evidence clearly shows that you can improve retention, the worst-case scenario is that you end up with a more competent team that is better able to cope with the challenges of the industry today. And if the upside is reducing turnover by 20–50 percent, and thus, stabilizing your staffing levels, I’d call that a worthy investment.

Bill Bellissimo is president and CEO of CrunchTime! Information Systems, Inc., a leading provider of back-office restaurant solutions that simplify and automate restaurant operations. In 2021, CrunchTime acquired DiscoverLink, Inc., a pioneer in learning and development technology for the restaurant industry, whose offerings include a learning management system and a library of 100-plus restaurant-specific e-learning courses.

Expert Takes, Feature, Labor & Employees