Dean Gibson, TAFE NSW teacher, discusses staff retention in the hospitality industry and shares insight on how to use training programs to work for your business.   

Finding the right people to work in your kitchen can be a lengthy process; the right skill set, the right attitude and the right timing all need to come together. While an effective recruitment process requires dedication, luck can also be a factor. The one constant of the ever-changing hospitality landscape is the fact that labour costs will always be one of the largest single expenses hospitality managers will ever have to contend with. Given how expensive it is to employ people, it is very important that not only do you choose the right people for the job but that you also keep them there. Good employees are golden. Given how time consuming and costly recruitment can be, it is just as important to put as much effort into employee retention, especially in our industry where turnover tends to be high.

Why should you care about staff turnover?  
Recruitment is an expensive and time consuming process and, let’s be honest, a revolving door does little to boost existing staff members’ confidence in management or the business. It is costly to set aside time to post advertisements, interview, review, test someone’s skills in the kitchen, make call backs, set up an induction and weather the inevitable teething process. The flurry of activity that accompanies a new hire should be kept to a minimum throughout the year. Accordingly, it is good to invest time and effort into retaining the staff you have, to keep turnover to a minimum.

Why do staff members leave?
The first step to developing a good staff retention program is to understand why people leave in the first place. Sometimes their leaving may come as a surprise but a savvy manager can see the signs if they keep their eyes and ears open. Signs include seeing an increase in customer dissatisfaction, food or other items going missing from the kitchen or employees being openly disgruntled. If things are not feeling right it’s usually because they aren’t, so go with your gut. Generally, staff members leave their job due to:

  • Inadequate pay rate
  • Conflict with other people or an unhappy work environment  
  • Their hours do not suit their personal situation
  • Lack of recognition
  • Not enough opportunities for advancement
  • Lack of employment benefits
  • Desire for broader experience

Certainly, as a manager you cannot fix every issue an employee will face throughout his/her tenure. It is also useful to remember that not every reason an employee may have for leaving is negative. This industry encourages chefs and hospitality staff to develop broad experience across a number of different establishments as part as their education and evolution. In that respect, sometimes moving on is simply a part of the business. But when it comes to dealing with reasons that are not about growth and career progression, it is important to work with the variables you have some control over so that you are better equipped to acknowledge and manage staff turnover. These variables include how you recognise staff, how you map out pathways for career progression and what benefits you provide employees.


Employee recognition
Employee recognition is an important part of employee retention; everyone wants feel recognised and like they belong, especially at work. Think about what you want to value and the reasons why. That’s the honest starting point for any recognition program. Recognition needs to be tied to your business values and goals, not just a bunch of ‘corporate speak’, for it to be authentic. It can’t just all be about working quicker or more cheaply – although that’s laudable – but rather how an individual’s efforts is serving the broader strategy. Recognition needs to be meaningful to matter.  

Personally, I’m a big advocate for a culture of competition in the kitchen; healthy striving can be a fantastic incubator for innovation and creates a clear context for regular reward. It is also the kind of activity that can foster peer to peer recognition, each member of the team can see what skills and creativity other members have and can really shine a light on specific talents.

A good, easy practice to get into is using team meetings to share stories of people’s achievements, it is an easy way to increase the frequency of recognition and build a workplace culture of affirmation.

Career progression pathways
A great way to stem staff turnover is to show them that you value their skills by expanding and refining them through specific training. To develop an effective training program, it is important to understand what the needs and goals of your business are. Ask yourself, what are the weak areas? Areas where there might be room for improvement include anything  from technical competency in certain culinary techniques, to the more practical need to train people up to use specific forms of equipment or machinery or improving customer service skills.

Once you’ve ascertained what areas can be approved, consider them in terms of your short and long term business goals. The relevant questions here are what sort of skills are needed to keep my kitchen and business functional and thriving right now? Which skills will help my business grow in the future? This way of thinking will help break down what needs to be addressed and when, refining your approach by putting a timeline on it. Having defined your goals you can then think about what training modules will help in achieving them.

There’s lots of ways you can pursue training. For example:  

Short courses
These can be short, one-off on-the-job training in new processes, machinery or techniques or a demonstration of new ingredients. This kind of training benefits those who will be directly affected by the process and is a way to bring people up to speed so they can perform their job accurately and with ease. 

Longer courses
Recommending a certificate or a diploma to a staff member is a way of increasing their contribution to the business. Investing in a staff member demonstrates that you value them enough to develop them and helps you build a career trajectory for them that will meet your operation’s current and future needs.

Workforce development program
If your skills needs extend beyond just one or two individual workers, you can consider a workforce development program that will allow you to address your business’ needs more comprehensively. A training provider, like TAFE NSW, can undertake a workforce development program to support your business plan. This entails an analysis of the following factors:  

  • Identifying training needs to address skills gaps or to work with a new technology
  • Improving how your staff members relate to customers
  • Updating skills to improve productivity and competitiveness

Ultimately, training is a great way to retain staff because it gives them a stake in the success of the business. Always ensure you allow employees to evaluate their training and tell them you want honest feedback, this gives them a real say in what is useful and what is not and gives you, as a hospitality manager, a direct line in to what people are thinking and feeling about their work, which is always useful.

We all know what a tough game the hospitality business can be: we work long, sometimes unsociable hours, and have the stress of a fast paced working environment. What makes a difference is having good people in your team. If you find someone worth keeping, then it is well worth the effort to put in practices and programs to retain them. In fact, it is good leadership and good business sense to do so. What it boils down to is that happy front and back of house staff equals happy, returning and referring customers.

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