Hiring Made Simple: Operators Offer Tips on Hiring Quality Personnel

Recruiting, interviewing and background checks help find employees.

By Paul King, Editorial Director

Operators who pay attention to the three major steps of the hiring process—recruiting, interviewing and background checks—make the job of hiring the right employees a simple one.

For most foodservice operators, finding employees in the current economy has not been particularly difficult in recent years.

“Our biggest challenge in recent years has not been recruiting and hiring, but rather sustaining employees,” says Duane Whitfield, human resources administrator for the Jefferson County (Colo.) School District, who explains that the economy and an unemployment rate of around 9% have simplified the search process.

However, as Whitfield and others will testify, that doesn’t mean finding qualified employees who will last has become any easier. In fact, a glut of candidates can mean more headaches for operators who have to weed through more resumes, conduct more interviews and make more background checks in order to find just the right personnel.
But the process should never be short-circuited, operators say, or else the fallout could make the situation worse. From the initial search process through the reference checks, hiring qualified people remains a laborious, but necessary, process.

Recruiting: Ideally, the hiring process should begin before an employment ad is even written. Rich Turnbull, associate director, University Housing & Dining, at Oregon State University in Corvallis, says the first step is considering exactly what you will be searching for.

“If the position is an existing one, it is always a good idea to think about what the organization needs,” says Turnbull. “It may be that the position requires the same knowledge, skills and abilities as before the position was vacated, but I always try to recruit someone with a higher skill set than the previous job holder. That is one of the ways our organization can continue to get better. So, if we are looking for a higher skill set, then the position description and minimum and desired qualifications all need to be reviewed and updated.

“If the position is a new position, then what are the short term and long term goals for this position, and what is the skill-set necessary for someone to be successful in this new role?” he adds. “It is critically important for each new employee to have very clear expectations about their job and a detailed orientation plan in order to create the necessary pathways to success. During recruitment I think it is important for applicants to understand their initial role in the organization but also what future opportunities may exist.”

Once the goals have been established, they must be communicated to prospective employees through the search ads. Turnbull says advertisements must be carefully worded in order to attract the right kind of candidates.

“Having an understanding of what might motivate someone with outstanding skills to apply for the vacancy is important,” he says. “So the actual recruitment language used is important. There is a difference between,
‘Oregon State University Residential Dining is recruiting for a Cook 1 position’ and ‘Oregon State University seeks a cook experienced in the art of flame broiling for a high volume exhibition-style restaurant with open kitchen’. My guess is that the applicant pool would be different based on the above language.”

David McDonald, senior business director for Housing & Dining at Rice University in Houston, notes that at his university, prospective employees learn quickly that experience or education alone won’t be enough to land them a spot.

“In regards to hiring—chefs particularly—we have steadily raised the bar so that education and experience in combination has become our baseline,” says McDonald. “So, instead of experience in lieu of education, or education in lieu of experience, we now require both.”

Tim Dietzler, director of Dining Services at Villanova University, notes that understanding what the employer can and can’t provide is essential.

“For our staff positions, we have always worked to hire for attitude, knowing we can train staff. It is difficult to train for and adopt a positive attitude. Hire for attitude and train for skill.”

Dave Reeves, director of nutrition services at Elmhurst Hospital, Elmhurst, Ill., calls the hiring process “an art and not necessarily a science.”

“It is imperative that you not only look at the applicants’ skills to perform the duties of their position, but also to make sure they will fit into the culture of your organization,” Reeves explains. “Peer interviews, background checks and behavioral interviewing are all important techniques to help find the right candidate. However, I find the face-to-face interview to be the most important and reliable means to find the best candidate.”

The interview: In that vein, Dietzler says, it is important not to cut corners in the interview process.

“For exempt staff positions, performing an in depth interview that covers the career of the candidate—from education to their first job to current status—is essential,” he explains. “For each job they held we ask what they liked and what they did not like about the job, who their supervisor was and how their work ethic would be described by their supervisor.”

Jefferson County’s Whitfield considers the interview to be the primary screening tool.

“The important thing here is to use a screening tool that will serve to reveal the candidates’ real-life experiences as demonstrated on their resumes and application materials,” he says. “Don’t just assume that resumes are accurate and take them at face value. With so many applicants out there you need a way to screen good candidates.

“An effective interview, when administered correctly, accomplishes two goals,” he adds. “First, it weeds out the candidate who doesn’t have the technical job skills from the one who does. Second, an effective interview is the second opportunity you have to determine whether or not the candidate’s skills align with the goals of the organization. Don’t take the interview process lightly. Create well thought-out questions, thoroughly understand your organization and spend time building the interview process around the needs of the organization.”

At Rice University, potential employees go through a ‘cultural interview,’ to assess their ability to ‘fit in.’
“Rice is a unique school, full of tradition and unique cultures and sub-cultures,” says McDonald. “When interviewing chefs, we base our interviews as 60% how well they fit the culture and 40% culinary skill. The committee for the cultural interview is made up of people from my staff, staff from other departments and sometimes students, depending on the position.”

Rush University Medical Center in Chicago takes a similar approach to interviewing.

“We have tried to incorporate more behavioral and situational questioning in the interview process to get a better sense of how someone might function in our environment,” says Mary Gregoire, head of the Food and Nutrition Department at Rush. “We also have expanded our department orientation to include a part day on guest service for all our staff, to emphasize its importance regardless of the position.”

The interview should be set up to invite candidates to learn about their prospective employer at the same time they themselves are being assessed, notes OSU’s Turnbull. In that regard, making candidates comfortable is essential.

“One of the things I learned from one of my very first interviews out of college was to let applicants know that the interview is an opportunity for the applicant to get to know as much as possible about Oregon State University and the job they are interested in,” he explains. “I know that this just seems intuitive, but by changing the focus from the applicant needing to sell themselves, to the organization having to sell itself, tends to make applicants more at ease and in control. The result is often a more relaxed and more informative interview.”

Turnbull adds that he tries to accomplish this by starting the interview in a non-interview setting, taking time to tour the facility and talk about the history, mission and goals of the organization.

“Asking open-ended questions in the interview is essential,” Turnbull notes. “Almost all positions require good communication skills, so asking questions that require an applicant to describe their experience is a good way to get them to talk and, at the same time give you a glimpse into their communication ability. Interview questions need to get to the answers of at least these three things: does the person have the knowledge, skills and abilities to do the job; does the person have the desire to do the job; and will this person be an effective team member?”

Background checks: “Do conduct reference checks,” adds Whitfield. “Sometimes reference checks give you just enough information to make a sound ‘hire or do not hire’ decision. Don’t assume your hiring process is failproof. Don’t overlook this important step and remember that even the best laid plans can and will fail.”

Villanova’s Dietzler says his team seeks active references during the process. For example, during the interview, when candidates are asked how their former bosses would describe them, the interviewer will suggest they call their former supervisors to set up a reference call.

“We have implemented 360-degree reference checks,” says Elmhurst’s Reeves. “The process requires the prospective hire to provide five references—two managers and three peers). The prospective hire signs a release and then the e-mails are generated to their references. The replies are anonymous; we focus on skills that will make the applicant successful in the position. This has been one of the most beneficial tools I have seen to evolve in the hiring process.”

Expect the unexpected: Even when operators think the hiring process is foolproof, glitches can occur, providing valuable lessons for future searches.

“Mistakes happen, and when they occur you’re left with controlling the damage,” Whitfield says. “Learn from them and move on. I once hired a kitchen manager for one of our most prestigious high schools. The hiring timeline was very short; we needed someone now. I conducted a thorough screening, the candidate interviewed well and the references came back clear, so when I hired him in record time I was very proud of my accomplishment. He quit one week later without notice and without a replacement. What I learned is that good hiring takes time. Don’t cut corners, do develop a plan and stick to it.”

OSU’s Turnbull agrees. “Never settle,” he says. “Only hire someone who can take you to the next level. Fill in with temps if you have to, but when you make the hire, make it for the long term.”

“When we lose a staff member, it often places pressure on managers to hire quickly to fill the vacancy,” Reeves notes. “Hiring to just to fill a position is a mistake that can occur when managers do not have an adequate contingency plan. We have used temporary, part-time staff, and overtime to temporarily fill vacancies, to ensure that we hire the right staff members.”

Finally, Turnbull says, expect to make mistakes in the hiring process.

“I’ve asked the wrong questions, failed to adequately prepare for the interview, failed to help set the applicant up for success, advertised in the wrong media, said the wrong things in the ads, paid too much for an ad that ran too long, failed to have the right people on the search committee, didn’t listen to the job references because I liked the way the candidate interviewed, couldn’t connect with references but hired the person anyway, convinced myself that just because the person didn’t communicate well that the job didn’t require a lot of communication anyway, and a host of other mistakes,” he says. “The good thing is that we all learn from our mistakes as well as from our successes. So the good news is that we now have a pretty amazing staff and we continue to get better at finding and hiring talented employees.”