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HELP WANTED! Turn This Message into an Opportunity

By Debby Cannon, Ph.D., and Charles Marvil, MS

Drive through almost any town in Georgia, and you don’t have to travel far to see a sign outside a restaurant or foodservice establishment proclaiming, “Help Wanted.”

While the casual observer or average diner may not see the clues that a talent war is underway, call in the troops. The battle of finding employees has become a priority for many business operations.

As the economy continues to shift into high gear throughout much of the state, it’s not just restaurants and foodservice businesses that are needing more employees. We are competing with other service industries like retail and healthcare that are tapping into the same labor market.

In April 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that the unemployment rate had reached the lowest level in nearly a decade, down to just 4.5 percent. At the same time, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Georgia State Economic Forecasting Center noted that job growth in the state had rebounded since the recession and was strongest in both lower-wage and higher-wage sectors – specifically leisure and hospitality positions, which are up 25.4 percent in metro Atlanta.

How does a foodservice operator find the best talent in a tight labor market? It’s not an exact science but a combination of analytical skills, creativity and networking.

An Essential Foundation

Take the time to review your employee selection processes to be sure your company’s core values and culture, performance standards and working environment are clearly evident. A common problem in a tight labor market is to settle for the “available” candidate who may not be a fit for your operation.

To what extent can your operation train a person and provide coaching to ensure successful performance? What are “red flags” that countless hours of training may have little impact? For example, menu knowledge might be readily achieved by a candidate. Increasing one’s empathy and ability to “read” the guest’s needs during the dining experience, however, will most likely take much longer and is more difficult to achieve for a job candidate who has limited interpersonal skills.

Don’t make the desperate assumption that you can transform the applicant. Typically, the behavior seen in an interview situation is the person’s “best performance.” Ask open-ended, probing (but always legal!) interview questions that have the applicant doing most of the talking during the interview process. (See sidebar for sample questions you can ask.) Bring in key line employees who epitomize your restaurant’s culture and performance standards to get their input on the candidate as a potential coworker.

Whats In It for Me?

The restaurant operator has to be crystal clear on the qualifications needed for each open position and to what extent the operation can prepare the less-than-qualified applicant. However when it comes to developing your recruiting and marketing materials, you’ll want to adopt a different vantage point.

In recruiting, the focus must become more applicant-oriented: Why would you want to work for this business? Ask your current employees what attracted them to your restaurant and what they love most about the operation. These may be great testimonials to put on a flyer or in an ad.

  • Flexible schedules – a great advantage; The foodservice industry has historically been known for flexible scheduling, and this is an advantage for many target markets – students, parents, retirees or those wanting to add a second job. If flexible scheduling or part-time work is appropriate for your operation, be sure to include that in your recruiting marketing materials.
  • For an upcoming college graduate, career opportunities are typically a priority. One hospitality company has recently started an innovative approach focused on college students – work in our operation for approximately one year rotating through essential positions and, based on performance, move into an entry-level management position. With proper planning, the rotation would start for the college student while still in school, and the movement into management would coincide with graduation.
  • A positive and fun working environment is important. Few companies describe what makes them special in this area. Most people look for learning opportunities, not-the-same routine every day, the chance to meet and work with interesting people. That’s the restaurant industry, but these facts are seldom mentioned in recruiting new talent.

Delivering the Message

In a tight labor market, recruiting has to be multi-faceted. Consider adding a “Jobs & Career Opportunities” page to your website.

Online searches are the most utilized form of job exploration. Other than updating the list of openings to stay current, this is a low-cost option that can provide great visuals of the workplace. Be sure to have the website photos feature workplace images to attract top talent. Your website is also a great place to feature employee testimonials urging individuals to apply.

Use social media effectively. Like a website, social media can spread word of your job and career opportunities to many. Even smaller operations can establish a Facebook page as well as use Twitter.

Build relationships with local schools – high schools, vocational schools, colleges and universities. There are many ways to work with schools, from running an ad in the school newspaper or football program to sponsoring an event or attending a career fair.

Think of all of these activities as recruiting opportunities, and make sure the message of “We’re looking for top talent” comes through. For in-person events, make sure your most energized and positive employees are representing you. They are truly the best form of advertising, and their joy in working for your restaurant is contagious.

The “Help Wanted” signs can be transformed into messages broadcasted to much larger audiences: Join a great team and become one of our stars!

Ask the Right Questions

Not sure what to ask a potential employee during the interview process? Instead of questions that result in “yes” and “no” answers, try asking some that encourage the person to reveal more about themselves.

Open-ended, probing behavioral questions are focused on past work experiences that reflect the individual’s abilities, experiences and personality. This is important because past behavior usually predicts future performance.

Try a few of these in your next interview:

  • Tell me about a time when you turned around a situation and made an angry guest happy. What happened and what did you do?
  • Describe your busiest day at work. What made it stand out to you as the “busiest?”
  • You’ve worked in several restaurants. Describe how you approach a table and what you say to start off the dining experience.
  • Tell me about a situation when you observed a coworker doing something unethical or illegal. What did you do?
  • What is the biggest mistake you have made on a job, and how did you handle it?
  • What have you done when you strongly disagreed with a manager’s decision? What was the decision and what did you do?

In evaluating the responses to these types of questions, look for the following:

  • Are the applicant’s experiences congruent with work expectations in your restaurant?
  • Are the applicant’s skills and knowledge areas transferrable to your organization?

Do the applicant’s actions, described in the answers, reflect your company’s standards of guest service, company policies, ethical behavior? Not only do you want to hear about the situation but also how the situation was resolved and any follow-up actions the person would take.

Debby Cannon, Ph.D., is Director of the Cecil B. Day School of Hospitality in the Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University. Ranked as one of the Top 25 hospitality programs in the country, the school offers both undergraduate programs and a one-year graduate degree through the Regynald G. Washington Masters in Global Hospitality Management Program. Visit or call 404-413-7615 for more information; applications are being accepted through June 1 for the mid-August start of the Masters in Global Hospitality Management Program.

Charles Marvil has more than 35 years of experience in the hospitality industry, including hotels, restaurant management and POS technology. He is on the Industry Board of Advisors for The Cecil B. Day School of Hospitality Administration at Georgia State University, and he works as a Marketing Associate for Sysco Atlanta.


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