The relationship between operators and employees is being tested in unprecedented ways.

A recent CNBC headline read: She got a forgivable loan. Her employees hate her for it. While the headline isn’t news, it highlights a new emerging reality that cracks are appearing in the connection between restaurant operators and employees. The signals are clear: frustration, anger and bickering.

The same signs of an impending divorce.

According to a nationwide survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association, no other industry has been hit harder by the coronavirus. Eight million—or two out of three restaurant workers—have been laid off or furloughed. Meanwhile, 40 percent of restaurants have closed their doors with little hope of reopening. Everyone is suffering, and so is the relationship between leaders and workers.

Part of the problem, highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, is that operators believe work is a contract while employees believe work is a relationship. Both are true belief systems; however, this is the first time in recent history operators and employees are simultaneously going through a real and present trauma, and a second wave is coming. The relationship between operators and employees is being tested in unprecedented ways.

The Pandemic is the Earthquake & the Second Tsunami Wave is Coming

A Tsunami (started by an earthquake elsewhere) is a series of waves. The first wave—as in many marriages—is often not the most dangerous. Second and successive waves often catch people off guard, leading to further destruction. The arrival of operator relief funds and individual financial relief, while dining room bans remain in place and customer demand remains low, is a very dangerous second wave with consequences for the industry and its workforce.

Operators eager to restore their business and maximize Paycheck Protection Program forgiveness loans are quickly recalling laid off workers—some of whom don’t want to be recalled. This means restaurant leaders are in the hazardous position of having to both safeguard lives and livelihoods, while operating a restaurant without a dining room, and relaunching a restaurant business without the guarantee of customer demand.

Meanwhile, laid off workers struggling to make ends meet are finally seeing relief from individual stimulus payments and slow-arriving unemployment assistance only to be called back to a business which may or may not have work in eight weeks. And, for now, the math may favor workers’ staying home (The Unemployed and Essential Low-Wage Workers After the CARES Act).

To avoid a bitter divorce with long-term implications, both parties must imagine a better future and work together to heal relationships and achieve a shared vision where everyone is truly better together.

Set aside the conflicting news reports and the armchair advice you are reading in online forums for a minute. Breathe deeply and imagine the relationships you want to have in the future—say six to 12 months.

Neither business nor individual stimulus will last forever. Federal and state governments will reach their limits. Some businesses will survive, and others will not. Workers will be exhausted from working through the pandemic or have exhausted their financial assistance.

It is okay if current circumstances give you intense feelings. It would be strange if you didn’t feel frustrated, anxious, stressed, angry or even depressed. These feelings are signs you want something to change for the better. Unfortunately, there is not a magic wand that can be waved to solve all of the problems created by the pandemic.

What is not okay is directing those negative feelings and emotions onto others in a harmful way. How we treat each other matters now more than ever. The only solution to our woes is to seek awareness and understanding, make choices that build positive working relationships, and align around common goals and shared visions.

Healing Our Relationships and Closing the Divide

The people in the restaurant industry who want to live their higher purpose, avoid injuring humans they care for and depend on, and mend relationships with an eye for the future, have to pause now. Think about and invest in the small steps that can be taken to stifle animosity and build lasting relationships.  

Our success is defined more by the quality of our relationships than our savvy to fully leverage bluntly designed government aid programs. Now is the time to make long-term investments in shared vision, mutual respect, better communication, higher trust, and reciprocity between operators and employees. Broken down, each of these values mean:

Shared Vision

  • If this industry isn’t for you; plan a safe transition.
  • If you want a better future; build it together.
  • Focus on gainsharing; not winning versus losing.

Mutual Respect

  • Acknowledge, don’t ignore, the problems.
  • Focus your feelings on the situation; not the people.
  • Cultivate a genuine sense of being in this together.

Better Communication

  • Seek to understand each other.
  • Listening and being heard is meaningful.
  • Communicate clearly and often.

Higher Trust

  • Be kind. Be honest. Be genuine.

Reciprocal Relationships

  • Focus on building reciprocal relationships.
  • Walk away from users and people who take advantage.
  • Practice appreciation & give gratitude daily.

Healing our industry will begin by first healing our relationships with each other. All business transformation begins with individual personal ones first. And all personal transformation begins with awareness and choice.

Not all relationships are meant to be; and that is totally okay. In some cases, we were never meant to be together. In other cases, there will be too much baggage to unpack—emotional or otherwise. In many cases, there is an opportunity for us to come out of today’s crisis with stronger relationships than we have ever had. To paraphrase author Richard Leider, only you can decide if you will be pushed by waves of fear or pulled by your possibility. And that is perhaps, the gift of the journey.

That journey starts with one single step toward each other while embracing reality. We can and should be better together.

Jamie Griffin is Founder and Principal of Consult to Grow (formerly Good Workforce), a business consultancy focused on helping small-to-medium sized businesses and restaurant chains improve, scale and grow through strategy, people, systems and process.

Expert Takes, Feature, Labor & Employees