Moving Past Generational Bias in the Restaurant Industry

Does age affect performance in the restaurant industry? One study says it's better to focus on competency models than generational ones.
Does age affect performance in the restaurant industry? One study says it's better to focus on competency models than generational ones. Image Used with Permission

In the restaurant industry, it’s one source of chatter that never seems to quiet down. Hiring is, perhaps, the most common thread throughout the business, and undeniably one of its most contested. How do managers, chefs, and owners target traits that are highly difficult to measure—qualities like customer service, level-headedness, affability, work ethic, and other personal manners that can’t be penciled into a form or printed onto a resume?

And what about age? Separating employees into generational brackets is another crutch operators lean on, both from a negative and positive angle. Is it realistic to believe, say in the case of Millennials, which represent the fastest influx into the work force, that all young employees are tech-savvy and selfish? Or all Baby Boomers are money-driven and stubborn? According to Assess Systems, which analyzed the work-related traits of more than 500,000 respondents in a white paper titled “Generational Differences: The Newest Way to Justify a Bad Hire,” labeling potential hires by age categories is an overhyped, and over-relied concept. Instead of thinking inside several boxes, they recommend hiring based on specific competencies, traits that can vary and change across ages and generations. Basically, employ the right people for the right job, with a focus on behavioral and personality factors that line up, not numerical distinctions. While it sounds straightforward, it’s often an arduous task.

Jen Gudenkauf, the vice president, concept human resources and leadership for Bloomin’ Brands, one of the world’s largest casual dining companies with around 100,000 employees and close to 1,500 restaurants, has seen the landscape change. Deploying technology, such as the talent selection and people development assessment solutions Assess Systems molds for companies, can make the process clearer. But, at the end of the day, it comes down to understanding people, and some good, old-fashioned experience. Gudenkauf spoke with FSR about the study, and how she navigates the always evolving, and difficult world of staffing.

Note: The article defines the four generations as Traditionalist/Silent (1930 to 1945 birth span), Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964), Generation X (1965 to 1982), and Generation Y/Millennials (1983 to 1999).

What were your initial thoughts about the study?

I thought the article was very interesting and has a lot of relevance in our industry. In any given restaurant, we have a mixture of all four generations working in the dining room, as well as the kitchen. And there’s a lot of conversation about how we manage them. I think that’s top of mind for a lot of people given the different work approaches. But what I found to be very interesting, and I think rings very true, is that the behaviors and competencies that drive success, at least to our standards, are the same across all generations. And I think that it’s a good way to stay grounded. There may be some social differences between generations, but at the end of the day, someone who has good hospitality and can interact with respect and care for our customers is going to be able to demonstrate that no matter what their age might be.

Is there a different training approach across generational gaps?

Some people learn visually, some kinesthetically. It’s important to make sure we train and communicate based on an individual’s constitution as it relates to how they think and how they learn. That’s always something we need to think about. The newer generation tends to be accustomed to information arriving very quickly through social media, and so they may very well learn much easier in that kind of an environment than somebody who’s been in the workforce for a number of years and prefers to have things typed out. I think the generation plays into that, but you see both cases, and it changes by the individual. I think you always have to look for core competencies, which may manifest themselves differently depending on someone’s background, experience, and generation. But when you train someone, you need to be broad enough in your approach that it’s going to cover all types of learning.

How do you make sure employees of all ages end up with the same core skills?

It may take an employee once or twice longer to pick something up, or vice versa, so we have a very blended approach to training at Bloomin’ Brands. We do a lot of classroom, hands-on, in-person training, and we do a mixture of online training. Communication is also key. You have to know your people well enough to understand how they absorb information. For example, you may have to do a little bit more classroom training with one group, and do a second verbal communication or written communication with a different group. Being in touch with that knowledge is what makes you successful. We always say, ‘We can teach you all the components of what you need to learn inside of the four walls of our restaurant, but we can’t teach you how to be hospitable to our customers.’ That’s a competency that you have or you don’t. That’s what we look for, and that’s what makes a great employee. 

Danny Klein

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