Solving Employee Issues

FSD asked operators what their top human resources issues were, and they said absenteeism, motivating employees, improving customer service and providing training on a budget.

The foodservice industry is a people business, and people are both an operation’s biggest asset and its largest headache. Keeping employees motivated and engaged and providing them with the training they need and the benefits they desire are never-ending challenges for foodservice directors. The editors at FoodService Director asked readers what are their biggest employee issues, and then sought answers from their peers to the five most common challenges they face. In the solutions that follow, you may glean a nugget or two that will help keep your employees satisfied and working for you.

My absenteeism rate for non-salary employees has risen alarmingly in the last couple of years. How can I encourage employees to make them more conscientious?

The answer for Tamara Almquist, manager of environmental and food services/safety director at Geisinger Marworth in Waverly, Pa., is allowing employees to make their own schedules. Every other week the staff gets together and makes up the schedule for the next two weeks. A supervisor is present but remains a silent observer unless a problem arises. “They have a list of rules they have to follow like no overtime and you can only work so many days in a row,” Almquist says about the process. “I only have two shifts. The employees can work whichever shift they want; people aren’t assigned specific shifts. It does help when someone knows they have something going on and instead of me scheduling them the morning shift and they can’t get day care they can schedule themselves the evening shift. It’s definitely helped with morale and people are less likely to complain about the hours that they are working.”

Incentives can help decrease absenteeism. However, many operators say this isn’t an option for them. Ariane Maori Shanley, director of food and nutrition services at South Kitsap School District in Port Orchard, Wash., says any attendance incentives she gives relate back to the job. For example, she will pay for registration to a conference for employees with a good attendance record.

Jeff Denton, director of child nutrition at Ponca City School District in Oklahoma, uses attendance incentives like iPods or digital cameras for staff members who do not miss a day. But he cautions: “Be sure to clearly define an absence. It gets complicated if you don’t. We say missing any part of your shift or being paid when you are not there, whether personal, business, funeral or emergency leave, is an absence. We had a problem caused by employees making up the hours when someone had to cover for them during the busy time.”

Many directors agree with Denton that making sure documentation and procedures are clearly stated helps with absenteeism.

Karen Brown, director of child nutrition at Sumner School District in Bonney Lake, Wash., has employees sign a detailed procedures notebook so that they know what is expected of them. “Then if an issue arises, no matter the violation, it is easy to reference the procedures notebook and address the problem. I have been able to change a lot of behaviors before they turn into problems.”

Mark Eggleston, director of hospitality services at Overlake Hospital Medical Center in Bellevue, Wash., holds 30-, 60- and 90-day check-ins with new hires, “to assess their needs as a new employee and what types of things we can do to help them continue to remain a valued staff member.” If an employee misses more than three unscheduled absences in a six-month window, a manager sits down with the employee to discuss the problem. “Obviously everyone gets sick or has an emergency absence, but a full-time staff person should not exceed three in a six-month window. That’s where accountability comes in.”

Peer pressure works well for some operators. Pat Farris, supervisor of School Food Services at the St. Tammany Parish School Board in Covington, La., says, “Employees need to realize the importance of a good attendance record. Each year the cafeteria manager should sit with the entire staff and remind them that they are part of a team. When someone is out, the other team members have to perform their duties.”

Solving Employee Issues, TrophyWhat can I do to motivate/incentivize my employees during a wage/salary freeze to keep them from looking elsewhere for jobs?

“Try to downplay the freeze as much as possible and avoid conversations about it,” says Stanley Hord, director of child nutrition for Tuscaloosa (Ala.) County Schools. “Do little things that can take their mind off the freeze. One of the main things to remember is to not let the quality of food and/or service slip during this time. A goal for the kitchen staff should be improved food cost, increased health scores and reduced customer complaints. Create some competition among facilities in regard to check averages, sales of items, cost per meal—all the variable costs and anything that can be controlled. Ranking them and doing an average works well. Everyone wants to be above average and they will strive to not be on the bottom.”

Competition between locations also works well for Deon Lategan, director of dining services at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. In order to instill unit pride, Lategan says his department encourages employees to participate in several creative team-building events.

“We do a staff Olympics where operations compete for prizes but more importantly for bragging rights,” Lategan says. “Each year we change up the events. This year we had a mop toss, a word search, build a structure out of Legos and a septacycle race. We also hold culinary competitions where the winner wins a huge skillet trophy that is displayed in work areas. We structure it as a “Chopped”-type competition where each unit gets a mystery basket full of ingredients and they have to prepare lunch for the rest of the department. There is a lot of trash talk leading up to the event—last year’s winners coined the phrase ‘take the pan if you can.’ Staff get to interact in ways they don’t normally do on a day-to-day basis. These activities help bring everyone together as a team of equals. The payoff has been excellent and makes the effort well worth the time.”

At SAS, in Cary, N.C., Julie Stewart, food service manager, has felt the pinch of no pay increases or bonuses, so her department has thought of non-monetary ways to motivate and recognize employees.

“We have taken two approaches to motivating employees,” Stewart says. “First are the things we do for employees. This includes providing the best environment we can. We have on-site healthcare, a recreation and fitness center, day care and other personal services for employees. When we get positive comments, we make sure that we share them with employees. Second are the things we do with employees. We try to create a work family environment that encompasses teamwork. We incorporate a little fun into staff meetings and try to celebrate together. For example, our holiday dinner is something all the employees look forward to. We all get to dress up, go out to eat and let someone cook and serve us for a change.”

Making sure employees are heard is another important factor when dealing with motivation, according to Julie Spelman, R.D., director of culinary and nutrition services for Banner Thunderbird Medical Center in Glendale, Ariz.

“We recognize employees by announcing their wow cards during our departmental meeting,” Spelman says. “Wow cards are completed by a patient or staff member recognizing a person or department for his/her service. It is a way for guests or staff to show their appreciation. When employees perform exceptionally under exceptional circumstances, we are allowed to give them ‘spot’ awards, which may consist of $25 or $50 gift certificates. We also save all of the small gifts and promotional items that we get at food shows and use them as giveaways.

During the past 18 months, the University of Georgia’s dining department has implemented two initiatives to incentivize employees.

“We started a lunch where seven employees from across our operations are chosen to eat with our director of food services,” says J. Michael Floyd, executive director of food services. “This group is selected at random to be a cross selection of various job titles. The lunch is held in a different location twice each month with a different group of employees each time.”

Floyd says the luncheons provide an opportunity for employees to ask questions and to give the senior management team input. Plus, the employees take the opportunity to meet other employees in the department and use this event as a networking opportunity, says Floyd.

“This is an easy way for us to let our team members know that they are an important part of our division,” Floyd says. “One of the items that came out of this luncheon was that many of our employees were not aware of the other areas of campus. We now give a campus tour to our employees on a regular schedule.”

At the University of New Hampshire, in Durham, Jon Plodzik, director of dining, says it’s all about engagement with the staff.

“We are all in this together, so they need to know that we care and understand their struggle, too,” Plodzik says. “We talk about the great things we do have like free employee meals and the camaraderie we share as an organization. We try to find fun in daily activities from little jokes like fake cockroaches on the workbench to singing in the servery. At the end of the year we held a less expensive dinner for all of the staff. Our beverage contractor helped us buy a pile of smaller gifts for staff and we pulled together all of the promotional T-shirts and items we collected over the year. I made sure we had enough so that everyone could select something. Keeping folks focusing on what is great about our organization and letting them know we really do care keeps them loyal during this difficult time.”

Solving Employee Issues, TrainingI have young managers with a lot of skills and ideas but turnover in my department is really low. How do I motivate the younger staff members who don’t see promotions in their near future?

“I like to send them to conferences like the Chef Culinary Conference at the University of Massachusetts [in Amherst],” says Craig Mombert, executive chef at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C. “It sends a signal to them that we view their skills as valuable enough that we want to develop them. They come back from these conferences so pumped up and they get to share what they’ve learned with other staff. We build up a sense of loyalty with them.”

David Riddle, executive director of Dining Services at Texas A&M University, in College Station, believes a similar approach can work for non-chef personnel. “We look to increase their scope of responsibility, unless of course they’re already overwhelmed,” he says. “Now, some employees will simply say, ‘You’re just giving me more work to do.’ But a good employee, one who is dedicated, will recognize that it is a sign of trust, that we believe he or she can handle the job. I have one dining hall manager to whom we gave responsibility for a satellite kiosk. Not only did it take her out of her comfort zone, it also got her out of the dining hall on another part of campus, so she didn’t feel so isolated.”

Riddle adds that sometimes, such added responsibility can also be rewarded with a slight increase in pay.

In institutions where the foodservice director also oversees other departments, employees can be used in several different types of settings.

“I try to utilize non-cooking skills that my employees may have in other areas of the hospital,” says Geisinger’s Almquist. “I have cross trained employees to work in different departments. This gives them a break from their normal workday, gets them used to working with different staff members and gives a new appreciation to the job they currently have. I have also signed up some of my supervisors to serve on different committees and asked employees to serve on task forces for the hospital, such as high-risk analysis, safety committee, etc. This gives a new purpose to their contribution, away from the normal department purpose.”

Almquist adds that her department benefits from having the ability to experiment.

“In most acute care hospitals, standardization and sticking to specific recipes is a must,” she notes. “In my establishment we are more relaxed and less constrained. My employees are able to be innovative, creative and express themselves with different items.”

Of course, cross training employees does have the downside of making them able to leave the department. But Almquist doesn’t see that as a negative.

“The employees that have moved out of the department in the last two years have stayed with the company and moved up to higher paying positions within the organization,” she explains with pride. “I have not lost an employee to an outside company in almost two years.”

Overlake Hospital’s Eggleston agrees with Almquist’s assessment.

“One of the things we’ve done as an organization is encourage individuals who work in foodservice to advance themselves in other areas of the hospital—especially those younger individuals who have degrees and are looking to advance in the healthcare profession. We feel they are still retained even though they move on to another department within the organization,” Eggleston says.

“We even went so far as to perform mock interviews with some of our top performers to prep them for outside interviewing and assisted them with resumes and cover letter updating,” he adds. “We have a significant Filipino population here, who have a very different approach to resumes and interviewing. We even helped one young man with his outfit preparation.”

How can I improve the customer service skills of my front-line staff?

Erin DeLain, director of culinary services, R.D., at St. Brigid’s at Hi-Park in Red Wing, Minn., says empathy is the best way to get her staff members to provide good customer service to the residents in this senior living community. “It’s effective to put the front-line staff in the position of the customer and role-play as to how they are to be treated or not treated,” DeLain says. “In long-term care we can blindfold a staff member, put cotton in their ears to make them hard of hearing, place a large marshmallow in the corner of their mouths and then feed them to stimulate what it’s like to be one of our residents. We also put Vaseline on fake glasses and made staff wear them so they had altered vision. This creates empathy and changed how customer service is performed.”

St. Tammany’s Farris agrees with DeLain about getting employees to see things from the customers’ perspective. “Sometimes we do not know how we come across to our customer,” she says. “The best way to show employees is to video them from the customers’ perspective. Is the serving line attractive? Is the employee smiling? Is this a place the customer would want to return?”

Ponca City’s Denton is starting a new program to solicit student feedback about customer service. A program called ee—eyes and ears—is starting in August, which will be similar to a secret shopper program. “The plan is to select unidentified students to watch for quality and listen to how the staff interacts with them,” Denton says.

South Kitsap’s Maori Shanley says student focus groups are important so that her staff can directly hear what the students say about them instead of hearing it from her. “They hear the feedback from the customer versus from me and that has really motivated my staff,” she says.

At Flagstaff Medical Center in Arizona, Jeanine Drake, director of nutrition services, has two customer service coaches who do in-service training each month. “They made a Power Point with messy pictures of the department and then clean pictures of the work area to show staff how it looks to our customers. They have also done skits where [the employees] are the patient, doctor and nutrition assistant and role-play poor customer service versus positive customer service.” Drake also holds motivational staff rallies to encourage good customer service.

“My philosophy is see something, do something,” says Sumner’s Brown. “If I am in a building and I see someone doing something they shouldn’t, I address it there quickly and then decide if I need to talk to them again. Depending upon the severity of the issue, usually saying something at the moment takes care of the problem. If it is more severe, I will send them a note asking them to make an appointment and come talk to me about it. This usually keeps problems small and takes care of them before they turn into a union-involved problem.”

Other directors say hiring the right people to be the “face” of your operation is the best way to ensure good customer service. Peter Cayan, R.D., director of food and nutrition services at Glens Falls Hospital in New York, is starting a pilot floor-ambassador program to make sure that any patient foodservice needs are quickly addressed.

“Of the five questions asked by Press Ganey about foodservice, the No. 1, by far, that drives the overall foodservice number has nothing to do with food at all but the ‘courtesy question,’” Cayan says. “We are establishing an ambassador program on the floor that will allow quick action to get issues resolved. We are focusing on getting people to the floors that have very customer-oriented skill sets. There are people who are just not good customer service people. We have seven times a day that we have the ability to impact what a patient’s perception is. We’re going to screen people to get the right people on the floors. We could also possibly be paying them more to do this.”

Our training budget has been slashed. How can I continue to provide continuing education or in-house training to my staff without breaking the bank?

“We are working with our prime vendor representative to provide education programs that we can do in house,” says Jennifer Hesmondhalgh, executive chef for WellStar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta, Ga. “Also the local board of health is always willing to help educate.”

Hesmondhalgh also says to check in with colleges and culinary schools because those institutions often will give their students credit for developing a curriculum and teaching a class. Check with local or professional organization such as ACF, NRA and ADA, Hesmondhalgh says, because those organizations are usually willing to come out and teach a topic as a service program for their organization. She also has come up with innovative ways to lean on her talented staff as well as her past education to provide training for her staff.

“I have brought in my old textbooks and developed mini classes from those,” Hesmondhalgh says. “Another great no-cost way to get training is if you have any employees who really excel at something—fried chicken, pie making, rolls, sushi, etc. Have them teach a class to their co-workers. We have also started a monthly book study, where we focus on time management, self improvement, nutrition, etc. Also if you have the time and access there are tons of free training ideas on the web.”

At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Joie Schoonover, director of dining and culinary services, says her department creates its own miniconference for its employees every January.

“We utilize vendors, manufacturers and campus resources as workshop speakers,” Schoonover says. “We usually have a keynote speaker at the end of the day and show off new products to the staff. The workshops have covered sushi making, presented by our prime vendor’s chef; sustainability, presented by an on-campus resource; cake decorating, presented by General Mills; and cheese making, presented by the Milk Marketing Board.”

Other topics and presenters included conflict resolution, which was presented by two staff members from the department of university housing; financial planning, which was presented by a staff member from the university’s school of human ecology; and food allergens, presented by a staff member from the university’s college of agricultural and life sciences. Schoonover says one year the department gave out reusable bags and another year a backpack but those gifts are really the biggest costs involved with the miniconference.

“We might spend $1,000 on a keynote speaker, but overall we have been able to spend between $1,000 to $2,000 for an all-day workshop for approximately 130 of our staff. Overall, it is a very minimal cost for a very well received day. I have staff hug me each year and tell me it is their favorite day of the year and how they very much appreciate what we have done for them.”

Rich Turnbull, associate director at Oregon State University, in Corvallis, says his department conducts in-house culinary training, which has been successful.

“Our director of culinary development has created a curriculum that provides a hands-on opportunity for our culinary-track employees to learn new skills,” Turnbull says. “Next year we will be adding in-house customer service training and team-building training sessions.”

Lisa Poggas, nutrition and environmental services director at Parker Adventist Hospital in Parker, Colo., says her department has never had much of a training budget, so they have conducted just-in-time training whenever they could.

“We bring in other professionals from the hospital—like speech therapy, vendors, pharmaceutical reps, etc.—who are willing to provide free training, which is beneficial,” Poggas says. “For my dietitians, we do allow one paid day of educational training, which I strongly encourage them to take advantage of. It's their choice if they want to do a webinar, attend a conference or whatever.”

Matthew Biette, director of dining services at Middlebury College in Vermont, admits providing training has been a particularly difficult area to tackle, but his department is still trying to target some training opportunities.

“We have in-house training with our human resources department that covers many policy issues and we bring in some people for things like ServSafe,” Biette says. “Also look for local chefs who are doing some interesting things and you could coordinate a training session in-house with him/her. The people who receive the training may also head to the restaurant in thanks to see how things are displayed, sold or presented.”