In November, students at University of Missouri in Columbia began leading protests against discrimination faced by people of color on campus—including some marches through the dining halls. Julaine Kiehn, director of the school’s campus dining services, said the 2015-16 school year was a tough one, but she was proud of MU’s students for being at the forefront of a national movement.
And not only did the protests launch important conversations with students, but also with staff. Kiehn heard the protests and thought that her student workers, at least, might not feel safe and welcome. So she set out to make sure that the dining halls could continue to be a safe haven. Here’s how Kiehn and other operators have rebounded from tense situations to create comfortable work environments.
Talk it out
Understanding how employees feel is the first step to creating a safer, more welcoming operation. Kiehn mandated quarterly meetings with direct reports after hearing that the team would like to have more one-on-one time with the management. “We’ll meet to talk with them individually about, ‘How are things going? Anyone you want to give a shoutout to? Do you have all the tools you need to do your job?’” she says. “So those regular meetings will help to build those positive relationships.”
At Framingham State University in Framingham, Mass., exchanging information with the whole team—and even guests—has helped create inclusive environments with the university’s evolving employee and customer bases. Framingham experienced media attention and negative feedback for a Cinco de Mayo party in the works after a guest identified the posters and content of the party as insensitive. Dining services immediately canceled the event.
“Where we have seen a great deal of success is in instances where we ask questions, we ask people to share, and where we let people identify with who they are and we respond with authenticity,” says Ralph Eddy, general manager for Sodexo at FSU.
Employee engagement results at Avera Sacred Heart Hospital in Yankton, S.D., showed that the foodservice team did not always feel like their concerns were acted upon at the management level. However, Doralynne Jarvis, director of nutrition services, knew her managers were consistent about taking concerns up the ladder.
“I’ve really tried to work better with transparency,” Jarvis says of making sure employees know their voices are being heard. “It’s about closing the loop.” Jarvis ensures managers follow up with team members, or personally asks if employees have any more questions or concerns after grievances.
R-E-S-P—you know the rest
Respect is not second nature to everyone. Kiehn has set up a series of employee education sessions on identity, biases and civility to address some of the concerns raised by MU student protesters. Members of the MU team and experts within the hospitality community serve as hosts; for instance, an executive from St. Louis-based Kaldi’s Coffee taught the team about the importance of relationships and empathy.
“[Our employees] have family history, they have experiences, they come from different backgrounds with how their family members have been treated, or even how they are treated now,” Kiehn says. “So what we can do is develop those individual relationships and keep working on it.”