Employee Retention: Lessons From a Master

By: Leaders for Today

While visiting this award-winning restaurant over the past year, I noticed that the same lovely hostess greeted me warmly each time. And the waiters were always the same helpful and easygoing professionals. Given that restaurants, like the hospitals we serve, often struggle with retaining both staff and management, I began to wonder about Blue Ginger's secret.

During my most recent dinner there, I got the opportunity to find out. Chef Ming was kind enough to take a few minutes to share some tips on retaining top employees in a turnover-prone service industry. I'm delighted now to pass them along to you.

Clearly, keeping your talent engaged, happy, and productive should be Job #1 at your organization. This is a priority at Blue Ginger, where many managers and staff have worked for the restaurant well over the industry norm of two years. In fact, three of his managers, Paula, Jon, and Sarah, have all been at the restaurant for more than five years.

According to Chef Ming, good retention starts with good hiring. He is involved in almost all hiring decisions and asks potential candidates for a commitment of two years - an eternity at most restaurants. Even though he can't really enforce such a commitment, it sets a high level of expectation that permeates the Blue Ginger team.

During the interview, Chef Ming also outlines possible career paths for those coming on board. He lets line cooks know they can move up to sous chef, and waiters can move into management. In fact, Chef Ming rarely hires management from the outside and, instead, typically promotes from within.

"I screen for attitude when hiring," Chef Ming told me. "I can teach just about any necessary skill to my employees, but I can't teach attitude." What I found particularly refreshing was Chef Ming's own attitude. He feels that he must set a good example for his staff and encourage a team atmosphere. He personally greets all employees in the morning and wishes them a good night when they leave. "I make it a point to say 'please' and 'thank you,' and I never say that someone works for me. Rather, we work together." His approach to his employees struck me as particularly genuine and personal - indicating that he really cares about them.

Of course, nobody is perfect. Chef Ming described a bad hire, a key chef who interviewed well but with time did not successfully integrate into the team. "I let him go as soon as it was clear he wasn't a good fit," said Chef Ming. "One of the biggest mistakes one can make in this business is to simply hope things will change. If a person isn't working out, it can be a drain on others. It's better for all concerned to end things sooner rather than later."

Chef Ming's interest in his employees' well-being extends to his business decisions. For instance, he told me that early on, he sensed that his staff felt the strain of working weekends. A family man himself, he understood that personal time is a precious commodity, and that no amount of money would make up for missing countless weekends with family and friends. He decided to close the restaurant on Sundays, and open instead on Mondays. While it wasn't the best financial decision for the business, it was indeed the best decision for his staff. He feels this one change was a crucial element to his high rate of retention.

Chef Ming also understands the need to recognize and reward his people. In addition to positive feedback and a collaborative atmosphere, he gives management and line cooks cash bonuses at the end of the year, based on the restaurant's profitability. "Cash is king," says Chef Ming, who went on to explain that in the restaurant business, waiters can make much more money than management, which can be a sore spot at times. Giving management and line cooks a cash bonus brings their salaries more in line with the waitstaff and ties their compensation to the success of the organization.

Summary: Those of us in the healthcare industry can learn much from Chef Ming's success running Blue Ginger. The secret to a low turnover rate begins with recruiting the best people possible and is followed by solid retention tactics, such as fostering professional development, giving positive feedback, and respecting and rewarding employees. These are great lessons from a master.

Human Resources
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