How to Hire, Motivate and Retain Good Staff

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The sullen monosyllabic teenage fast-food worker has been a staple of sit-coms and movies for years. It’s not an accurate portrayal but it does highlight the difficulty of finding, motivating and keeping good staff – and without good staff, your business will struggle for success. High employee turnover continues to be a key cost to fast food businesses that can mean the difference between success and failure in the industry.

People who work in fast-food quick serves often choose the job as short-term employment while they pursue education or other employment – but this doesn’t mean they can’t be excellent staff members if trained motivated and rewarded in the right way.

Another reason to find good quality staff is to save money in your business – training new staff is time-consuming and expensive. Large franchisees keep professional trainers who must put on classes for new employees. This is not an option for an independent quick serve so keeping trained staff long-term is important.

Finding and Hiring

The advent of online employment websites has made it easier than ever to find a large pool of candidates. These tips will help you narrow this group down to a small amount of potential employees that you can meet face to face.

1. How long have they stayed at previous jobs? If the CV says they are leaving restaurants regularly after a couple of months then you should probably not proceed to interview. Loyalty is a prized asset.
2. Look at their references: Candidates should be able to list at least two references from previous work. Applicants that don’t list any references or list family members may not be priority candidates.
3. Invite senior staff to help with the process: this can give your existing team a chance to see how well they think applicants will work within your established staff. it provides you with an opportunity to teach your staff something new, namely interviewing skills, which develops them professionally; and inclusion in the process encourages the engagement and retention of your current employees, thus reducing staff turnover.
4. Consider devising a test/screening system to evaluate candidates’ suitability for employment – maybe a series of ‘agree/disagree’ statements or a/b/c answers that assess attitudes and attributes [see case study, Pal’s]. It can take a bit of time to work up a clever, subtle test – for instance, a statement like ‘Stealing is Wrong’ is only going to get one answer, but something like this is a bit more taxing: ‘A customer busy on his phone walks out without taking the €3 change he’s due. Do you a) consider it a tip; b) put it in the charity jar; c) set it aside for him to claim back within the next few days; d) run after him with it. The ‘right’ answer here isn’t obvious, though most owner-managers would probably prefer c). But any of the other answers could initiate an interesting discussion which would throw light on the potential employee’s character.

Keeping Hold of Staff

Once you’ve got those top-quality workers hired, how do you keep them in the business long term? You need to give them good reasons to stay. Pay in the quick-serve industry won’t be high but you can offer job stability, a good working environment and opportunities for training and promotion. Another plus for the quick-serve employee is that they can usually get flexible working hours – great for younger staff members, those with children and university students.


Because the industry experiences high staff turnover rates, managers and owners often search for ways to motivate and retain good fast-food employees. Use incentives and other methods to get employees motivated to produce higher quality and more productive work results. Restaurants lose sales when employee attitudes are noticeably poor. Especially, slow service on a busy day often results in customers who give up and leave to go elsewhere. More motivated workers get more sales, especially at busy times. Here are some tips on motivating your staff:

1 – Know your staff – Make sure to get to know the personalities of your staff and observe how they work. When you understand your employees more completely, you can use this information to help motivate them to produce higher quality work.
2 – Be responsive – Encourage employees to share ideas, observations, and both negative and positive feedback. When you listen to employees’ ideas and give weight to feedback, employees feel valued and important. Employees who feel important usually feel motivated to perform high-quality work. Respond to problems that they mention – when they see you working to fix what’s bothering them they will feel more loyalty to the business.
3 – Allow Staff to progress – Create a hierarchy of rolls that employees can aim to progress to. If you do not have the ability to provide a salary increase at a particular time you might be able to motivate employees to perform and advance with regular promotions in the hierarchy of the business and the incentive of a future salary increase. This will also reward staff who have been loyal to the company.
4 – Reward Good Work – Use performance reviews of all employees to assess how they are working. Provide constructive feedback and encourage employees to continue to work enthusiastically to receive positive performance reviews. Use salary increases or rewards in conjunction with positive performance reviews. Institute an incentive such as naming an employee of the month. Each month, management should select an employee who shows exceptional leadership skills or energetic work habits.

Case Study – Pal’s

Pal’s is a Tennessee and Virginia based drive-in quick serve selling burgers, hot dogs, chicken sandwiches, fries, and shakes – their USP is the speed and accuracy of their service.

Their customers spend an average of 18 seconds at the drive-up window, an average of 12 seconds at the handout window to receive the order. That’s four times faster than the second-fastest quick-serve restaurant in the country!

They also make very few mistakes in ordering. Pal’s makes a mistake only once in every 3,600 orders. That’s ten times better the average fast-food joint, a level of excellence that creates huge customer loyalty.

How do they get workers with the skill levels to sustain this? Pal’s follows the business maxim the best companies hire for attitude and train for skill. It has developed and fine-tuned a screening system to evaluate candidates for employment – a 60-point psychometric survey, based on the attitudes and attributes of Pal’s star performers, that does an uncanny job of predicting who is most likely to succeed. It’s made up of a series of agree/disagree statements and the company believes it helps them find the most suitable new workers.

Once Pal’s selects its candidates, it immerses them in massive amounts of training and retraining, certification and recertification. New employees get 120 hours of training before they are allowed to work on their own, and must be certified in each of the specific jobs they do. Then, every day on every shift in every restaurant, a computer randomly generates the names of two to four employees to be recertified in one of their jobs. They take a quick test, see whether they pass and if they fail, get retrained for that job before they can do it again.

Pal’s has also assembled a Master Reading List for all the leaders in the company, 21 books that range from timeless classics by Machiavelli (The Prince) and Max DePree (Leadership Is an Art), to highly technical tomes on quality and lean management.

The result of this attention to detail in training and identification of talent is that staff turnover is extremely low. In 33 years of operation, only seven general managers – the people who run individual locations – have left the company voluntarily. Annual turnover among assistant managers is 1.4 percent, vanishingly low for a field where people jump from company to company and often exit the industry altogether. Even among front-line employees, turnover is just one-third the industry average.

“People ask me, ‘What if you spend all this time and money on training and someone leaves?’” CEO Thomas Crosby says. “I ask them, ‘What if we don’t spend the time and money, and they stay?’”

Pal’s almost obsessive focus on training may be too much for a small independent restaurant but there are valuable lessons to take from their success.

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