HUMAN RESOURCES

Turnover Happens

The problem of high personnel turnover is examined by a CEO who finds a silver lining in this staffing dark cloud.
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And frankly, it's not the worst thing to hit a company. The fact is, you can make employee turnover into an opportunity to strengthen your business

I tell my people on their first day on the job, "Wright's was an opportunity for my grandparents to get ahead. It's given me that opportunity, too. I want your time here to be a rewarding experience for both you and the restaurant. Ultimately, everyone leaves. If you decide you want to do something different, let us know. We may well have a role here that can help you. If not, we know people who might have what you do want. After you've been with us awhile -- a year or so -- we feel an obligation to help those who have helped us."

Do I sound insane? I don't think so.

Early in my stewardship of this restaurant I felt overwhelmingly frustrated with our turnover. People were coming and going faster than I could manage. Then I attended a seminar sponsored by the National Restaurant Association.

The instructor, Jim Moffa, quizzed us: how many were hiring permanently? Every hand shot up. Moffa laughed at us. Laughed! He pointed out that everyone leaves sooner or later. People want better pay or a different boss. Perhaps their spouses get transferred or their love affairs sputter and they're moving across the country. Occasionally, workers retire or die. It's not if they're leaving, he said. It's a matter of when they're leaving.

The savvy businessperson recognizes that reality, plans for it, anticipates it, suffers it, and lives with it. While Moffa was totally in favor of reducing turnover through smart selection, good compensation, and a healthful workplace -- thankfully, a third of our employees have been with us for four years or more, and they contribute tremendously to our success -- he still insisted that we recruit relentlessly.

Today I believe it's my job to reduce, not eliminate, turnover. (I'd be raising people from the dead if I could eliminate it.) As sure as the sun rises, people will leave Wright's for greener pastures. To get turnover to a livable level, we must hire right, manage wisely (being clear, consistent, and firm seems to work best), reward well, and keep hiring, hiring, hiring. When those goals are met, I face the best kind of turnover there is: talented people answering the call for new conquests, new directions.

The restaurant industry has a well-known reputation for high levels of turnover. Although some of that arises from weak management, most of it is attributable to the nature of the business. Food service demands intense mental and physical energy for long periods of time. People burn out and move on. We readily accept that process in some fields, notably sports and the more physically demanding arts, such as modern dance or ballet. Yet every industry confronts the issue of turnover. Maybe it's after someone has been with a company for 5 years, perhaps 10. But it's part of the working world.

People who quit their jobs at Wright's so they can further their growth have always left my restaurant a better place. An organization that's choosing to thrive and grow must expect a higher turnover rate than companies that settle for the status quo. With a wise selection process, ever more talented and experienced people replace those that are leaving, and the new workers take the organization to the next level. In my experience, turnover has made Wright's a much better restaurant. We wouldn't be where we are today if we had the same personnel we had 10 years ago.

Is it always easy? No way. Let me tell you what's on my plate these days. After nine years Gregg seeks new challenges, and his wife wants to move back to Atlanta. He is, of course, interviewing. Ed, following his previous job pattern and looking for a geographic cure, gives his notice. Tammy's expecting her baby in early February. She plans to return two or three months after her child is born, but I wouldn't be surprised if after the baby is born she elects to devote her time to her child. She's a very talented manager. She'll be a great mom.

The imminent departure of Gregg, Ed's abrupt exit, and the uncertainty of Tammy's plans mean we're hiring again. More help-wanted ads. More interviews. Lord, how many have I done over the past 13 years? And our busy Christmas season looms.

Hard as it is, though, when staff members give notice, I don't try to stop them. I thank them for their contributions and wish them well. I've found that trying to persuade someone to stay when that person believes another place is better is a waste of time.

Wilson is a good example. Our guests loved him, he did outstanding work, and his ethics and enthusiasm elevated his coworkers' performance. A little more than a year ago he gave his notice. He said he didn't want to be part of the holiday madness. He wanted to leave town well before Christmas Eve (a no-deal in my company, since we do 12% of our annual volume in the first 24 days of December), and he felt ready for something different. When he told me he was leaving, I was flabbergasted. I immediately tried to cajole him into staying. No, he was firm in his resolution. I asked him to reconsider it for a few days. He promised to mull it over but insisted that I should expect him to leave.

When he left my office, I rued my words. I had violated one of my cardinal rules about people who are leaving: by the time they've given their notice, it's too late to change their mind. Even if I sway them, they leave eventually and they're always hankering for that missed opportunity. So I caught up with Wilson, accepted his notice, thanked him, and told him he was welcome back anytime. And almost a year later, he's back.

Our general manager followed a similar path back in 1988, leaving for a chain that offered him a nice opportunity. In 1993 Mike returned, and now he's teaching us the things we need to know as our company prepares for its next challenges.

Looking back, the really talented people have rarely left after they've peaked. They were out there looking for new roles in my industry if we didn't have them or new careers in another field. As much as I would have liked to keep them with me, my company couldn't suit them all. They've opened other restaurants or gotten big promotions. I wouldn't have it any other way.

After years of whining about people's leaving, I've come to believe that a resignation letter is good news for everyone involved. A dynamic organization appreciates employee turnover as a natural occurrence and a healthful process. It plans for turnover, anticipating and suffering through the hardship, the headache, and sometimes, the heartache that ensues. Neither the organization nor its people are growing unless some staff members are in transition. Every departure presents the opportunity to bring in a new level of talent and skill to the company.

Ultimately, turnover visits every company, regardless of the cause. I find that, seen as an opportunity rather than an obstacle, turnover can serve the best interests of my guests, associates, and organization.

* * *

Jeffrey Mount is the president of Wright's Gourmet House, a $1.9-million, 34-employee restaurant and catering company in Tampa.

Last updated: Dec 1, 1994




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