There’s nothing like experiencing the industry from the inside, and the outside, on the same day.

On Monday (Feb 24), I was in Queenstown facilitating a Hospitality Leadership Workshop with a thoughtful group of twenty hospitality leaders, and in one of my favourite places in the world. Lucky me.

As is usually the case, especially in a tourist location like Queenstown, one of the immediate challenges’ we discussed was the transient labour market, and the ridiculously exclusive living costs. The industry often defines the problem as, ‘the lack of skilled employees.’

On the same Monday, I was juggling my 18-year-old daughter’s search for employment in the industry. She has applied for dozens of positions, but suspects she is not passing the first automated filter. Every FOH advertisement has asked for two years waitering/barista experience.

Seriously? You can get an MBA from Harvard in two years (if you have the cash). Why are so many hospitality employers prioritising two years’ experience for waiting tables and nothing else?

In my daughter’s case, the recruitment team will never learn that she is an extreme high achiever, dedicated to the industry, passionate about business, loyal and F&B experienced, because she’s discarded before the process begins. I do wonder what Richard Corian, the progenitor of Eleven Madison Park and Union Square Café, would say of her experience after taking the time out to inspire her in the first place.

As ‘hospitality thinkers’ our group discussed the issue, and I presented some industry-wide practices that I believe are unhelpful. While elements of the recruitment challenge are external to the business, there are considerably more that can be faced internally.

It is an enormous mistake for a business to pitch itself as an employer of necessity. What I mean by ‘employer of necessity’ is to approach recruitment as a strictly last-minute exercise by literally ‘throwing word out onto the street’ for any random seeking paid employment. I counted half-a-dozen scribbled sandwich boards, or cello-taped A4 sheets of desperation the morning of our workshop.

The second enormous mistake is to recruit exclusively on skills and experience. For years now I’ve listened to the sort of employee challenges that reduce hospitality leaders to tears. The stress is rarely provoked by a lack of initial experience. The worst employees are sometimes technical superstars. No, the seriously stressful stuff is that the person hired is disrespectful, does not care about how others feel, is largely egocentric or lazy and does not care whether the business performs well. They may have two years barista experience (as required), but the employee is tiresome company and probably draining the business of enthusiasm as well. The manager got what they advertised for and they interviewed on gut. Even a narcissist can be charming for the length of a standard hospitality interview, and it’s a bit disingenuous to then expect a kind and thoughtful person, who is passionate about your business, if you did not require exactly that in the first place.

Our friend, Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s fame, wisely explained, “We hire people in order to help them succeed.” That’s a serious commitment, which means you need to ensure you are recruiting the sort of person who is going to thrive in your business. You need serious people-loving skills, a strong work-ethic and a generous dose of optimistic kindness and curious intelligence. You’d better recruit for those qualities first.

The transient nature of a workforce sometimes works in favour of the business. Seasonality is part of the deal, but that does not mean that the ‘type’ of person hired should shift, and it does not alter the cultural necessity of having a stable core; a core team that is deeply committed to your business and is prepared to train others to potentially surpass their own contribution.

Attracting such people isn’t easy, but it’s best to at least try.

My daughter will find a job, that’s not the point, and unfortunately, she isn’t based in Queenstown. The point is that a hospitality business needs to be very clear on who they are looking for, and what knowledge, skills and character are non-negotiables. Be very careful not to employ on skills alone, especially skills that can be taught to someone willing (and able) to learn fast. It’s almost impossible to train someone to care, and it’s impossible to train someone to be kind.

If my daughter had found an advertisement that prioritised some experience, proven intelligence, proven enthusiasm for the industry and a character of commitment and interest in hospitality business, I’m convinced she would have a job already.

Sometimes, if your business lacks experience, then understandably your skills bank needs to be corrected, but skill requirements should not otherwise be a FOH (or BOH) priority over character and a genuine interest in hospitality business. Your managers and excellent training program should ameliorate skills shortages. If you want to attract and retain good people who care enough to be life-long learners, and feel invested in your business, forget unspecific or unnecessary hiring practices. Be strategic about your team.

  • Be super specific and systemised in your hiring standards on character. The Ministry of Human Rights has nothing against you specifically targeting people with a high-hospitality quotient; those who feel invested in your business and are kind and supportive towards their work mates. Create your standards, and then attract/recruit & hire on those standards. Your skills & experience requirements are still important, but they are secondary to character. Systemise, systemise, systemise for good people … don’t rely on gut.
  • Be confident in your own continuous on-the-job training. Don’t insist on skills that can be taught at the expense of people who care about you and your business. Curious intelligence is more important.
  • Have a single point of entry for recruitment, probably your website. If you do work with an agency, redirect the process back to your own recruitment portal and requirements. Over-time you shouldn’t need an agency because your reputation as an employer will spread like wildfire. Your workplace culture will be easier to strengthen, because your team will already be the right people.
  • Recruit 100% of the time, but only advertise real available positions.
  • Make sure your pay differences remain fixed over time and are clearly communicated and demonstrated from the beginning. Again, probably on your website careers page. There should be no random promotions or unexplained wage/salary packages. Ensure promotional and career pathways are clear. If a new position (partnership or business venture) develops, communicate the deal
    with transparency.
  • Train and hire from within as much as possible. Do you need Sommeliers? Then recruit great people and train them over time. Think training is going to cost you megabucks? Bad hires cost megabucks!
  • Some of the most successful hospitality businesses we know spend just as much time marketing for employees as they do customers. Prioritise quality souls, then train them how to carry three plates.

You’re gambling every time you exercise unspecific or unnecessary hiring practices.

Sure, he can make fast coffees … but he’s a gossip and a ‘boss backstabber’ – who wants to work with him?

And you don’t want so many transient workers? Then stop targeting tourists, when what you really need is an intelligent person who is so curious about business that they’d like to learn to run yours … perfect.

Alexis O’Connell
29.02.2020

2020-03-03T09:30:19+13:00