Reducing turnover can be as simple as modifying management practices.

A few weeks ago, two prep cooks at a restaurant asked for pay increases. They both had received raises recently. Their managers were riled up.

“That’s it,” one manager said. “Let them leave. We don’t want to be held hostage.”

“How long have they been here?” I asked.

The answer was seven years, a rare level of dedication in the restaurant industry. On top of that, they worked in a scratch kitchen where we couldn’t just swap in any other employee. The cost to replace the cooks and train substitutes would be significant and hurt the restaurant’s performance. I trust our managers and empathize with their challenges, but what problem would their solution solve?

We face these situations regularly in the restaurant industry. Two decades of them have led me to a realization: Employees leave the manager, not the business.

Of all the factors that influence retention, the empathy of managers counts above anything else. Yet, managers face pressures that can cloud their kinder nature. We ask them to drive sales, protect margins and find and develop great people. It’s a tall order.

Our industry’s challenge goes beyond any single manager. U.S. culture, the general treatment of restaurant managers, and their training can affect retention dramatically. I’d like to discuss those factors and what you can do to instill empathy among your managers.

The Cultural Skew

Why is employee retention unusually difficult in the restaurant industry? High-tech firms complain about employees job-hopping for better pay, more freedom, swankier offices, and other perks that seem extravagant. But restaurants are a different story. Jobs in mid-level and fine dining are viewed as transitional and therefore expendable.

In Los Angeles, for instance, would-be actors and actresses take restaurant jobs to fund their aspirations. College students and new graduates, too, take restaurant gigs thinking they’ll be stepping stones to something else. Restaurants are the largest source of private employment in the U.S., yet our culture says it’s not a ‘real’ career path.

As a result, people outside the industry look down on restaurant workers, clouding their perceptions and expectations. It’s shameful. In the skilled trades, the same phenomenon has created 5.6 million unfilled jobs. Our culture has demeaned any job that doesn’t require a four-year degree and happen in a cubicle.

Where unemployment is low, like here in Austin, Texas, restaurants are competing for a small number of individuals bombarded with the cultural message that working in a restaurant is ‘beneath’ them. No wonder keeping people is hard. They get in, but they don’t see a way up, financially or socially. The grass is always greener down the block or in another industry.

We Can Be Better to Managers

In a transitory industry made more so by a negative image, the onus is on operators to give people a reason to stay. This is good business sense because there’s an educational curve to any job. 

Labor productivity data is unequivocal: the longer a person does a job, the better they get. When someone’s been working for us for seven years and leaves, we’re not just replacing a role – we’re a replacing a person who’s developed unique skills and institutional knowledge. It has a ripple effect on execution, just as losing our best servers and bartenders diminishes the loyalty of guests who look forward to seeing them every week.

So, how can we keep employees longer than average? I’ve used a few proven tactics. Let’s back into them with a question: If employees leave managers, as I argue, then what affects how managers behave? 

Usually, it’s the way the operators or upper management treat them. Many managers work 70 to 80 hours per week. Our managers work between 45 to 50 hours per week. The reason is that stressed, unbalanced managers lose perspective. They become less tolerant and develop a sour outlook. Burnt out managers are more likely to drive turnover, so we take that unusual measure to keep ours in a healthy state of mind.

Second, to keep managers as empathetic as possible, we create a relaxed work environment by setting clear, simple expectations. Managers know that we measure performance by their ability to increase top line revenue and protect margins. That’s it. We’re not calling every day to badger them. We see the data on HotSchedules and try to support struggling managers rather than scare them.

Managers Can Learn Empathy as a Skill

No matter how well we treat managers, we must still teach skills that don’t come naturally to everyone. People who rise in the restaurant business have what I call the “hospitality gene.” They do the work because they enjoy serving people. You can teach people anything about the business, but without that ingrained trait, no amount of knowledge helps. The position attracts outgoing, caring individuals who like to be around people. My approach is to build on that gene. 

Beyond all else, the most important thing a manager can do is create an aware relationship with staff. When I walk into a kitchen, I say hello to everyone by name. I ask our managers to go much further than that. How many children does each staff member have? What are their kids’ names? What do employees do with their time outside of work? Are there any crises in the family?

Being an effective manager is not just about business because what happens to people outside of work changes their experience at work. Few businesses distinguish between managing a job role and managing a human being. We do the latter. 

That awareness of employees enables a manager to step into their shoes. In restaurants, too often the manager-employee dynamic is adversarial. But what a different place a restaurant would be if managers believed their duty was to stand up for employees. That’s what we’re teaching.

Overprotecting the Margins

Going back to the two prep cooks, I know whatever pay increase they requested would significantly improve their lives. It’s common for restaurant pay to border on a living wage, even in high-end establishments. Many employees work two jobs to make ends meet. The cooks weren’t trying to hold their managers “hostage.” They’re trying to live and raise families.

Employees must believe someone is looking out for them, and the someone should be their manager. After our conversation, the managers reconsidered, and the two cooks earned their raise. Thankfully, they continue to work with us. Had we said “no” and they left, who could blame them? Voluntary turnover is what every restaurant sees most.

If retention is a problem at your restaurant, start by considering how you treat managers. What expectations do you set? What are their working conditions like? Then, consider how the managers treat their people. 

I get up every morning, take a deep breath, and try not to point fingers. In my most heightened state of awareness, I know that whatever I pass onto our managers will be passed on to employees. Employees leave managers, but managers leave executives and owners. We have to be the model for our future leaders.

Expert Takes, Feature