As the hunt begins to find the Best Places to Work in Hospitality 2016, launch partners The Caterer and Purple Cubed hosted a lively panel discussion at London's Lanesborough hotel on what makes a great employer in the 21st century. Rosalind Mullen reports
With an £80m facelift and a reputation for five-star service, the glamorous Lanesborough hotel in London's Knightsbridge was a fitting venue for the launch of The Caterer's Best Places to Work in Hospitality 2016, run with people engagement specialists Purple Cubed.
General managers, HR experts and marketing gurus from across the industry gathered to hear why staff happiness should be at the core of every hospitality business. Taking the stage were three HR professionals, who tackled the industry's ongoing recruitment challenge by pursuing successful employee engagement and retention strategies.
Representing the smaller players was Steve Rockey, head of people at Big Easy, which is about to open its third outlet, a 400-seat restaurant in Canary Wharf this November. Rockey started out with employer giants such as Compass and PizzaExpress and made the switch to grow fledgling chain Byron from 18 to 46 units. He moved to Big Easy five months ago with a remit to ultimately take the brand nationwide.
Facing a different challenge was Alison Gilbert, HR director at CH&Co. The contract caterer merged with Host Catermasters Group (HCM) on 1 June and her task is to align its employees with CH&Co's culture. It is now the sixth largest contract catering business in the UK, with 5,000 staff and a combined turnover of about £200m.
Last but not least was Stacey Lawrence, head of HR at the Dorchester, part of the Dorchester Group, which consists of 10 international hotels. These include two London sites and Coworth Park in Berkshire. Indeed, 45 Park Lane won this year's Best Employer Catey, having ranked highly in the Best Places to Work in Hospitality 2015. Lawrence's career kicked off at Merlin Entertainments during an eight-year growth period, and she joined the Dorchester five months ago with the task of improving employee engagement and relations.
Taking the chair was Jane Sunley, chief executive at HR and employee engagement consultant PurpleCubed.
Why is engagement and retention so important in hospitality?
From the chair, Jane Sunley told the audience that a Gallup State of the Nation report on employee engagement revealed that 87% of workers go through the motions at work, but are not happy. She suggested a sure-fire way to turn this around is to ensure people are rewarded, stimulated and made to feel valued. In other words, engaged. And this, of course, has a knock-on effect in attracting and retaining recruits.
The panel agreed that if competitors want to stop haemorrhaging talented staff they need to give them reasons to stay.
Gilbert said: "Engagement and retention are more critical in our business because we are all going for the same people. There is a huge deficit in chefs in particular, so we need to engage with people to retain them."
But you can't rest on your laurels, added Rockey: "If you are a small brand, it is good to have a track-record of engagement as part of your credentials. Even if you are doing it well, you need to keep on your game. Engagement measuring helps."
That is certainly true for the Dorchester. Lawrence explained: "There is a correlation between employee engagement and guest satisfaction. If you look after your staff, they will look after your guests. We do engagement surveys twice a year, so we get continuous feedback on the areas we can improve."
Sunley posited that it was important for employers today to grow their own staff. This drew agreement from Gilbert, who said CH&Co targets youngsters by, for instance, getting involved with the Nestlé Toque d'Or competitions for catering students. She conceded, however, that the biggest hurdle was educating parents about why hospitality would be a good career for their children.
There was consensus among the panellists that apprenticeships should be developed.
"Even if they move on from your establishment, they will at least be in the industry and be part of the chef pool," said Gilbert.
Rockey suggested: "It's about looking wider. You can go outside the industry and look for another talent pool. That way you can potentially get some great people and develop them."
One question was whether swish world-class hotels, such as the Dorchester, find it easier to recruit and retain staff. Absolutely not, claimed Lawrence. However, with three properties in the UK, it pushes the advantage of career progression.
"We talk to employees about their career path and what their opportunities are. Generation Y are a challenge, though, because they want progression in six to nine months," she said.
L to R: Steve Rockey, Alison Gilbert and Stacey Lawrence
How do you recruit for keeps?
Lawrence told the audience that at the Dorchester, engagement measurement starts on day one to assess how aligned candidates are with company values. Talent Toolbox software is used to measure staff in terms of guest- centricity, how coachable they are and whether they are high or low performers.
"If you get the cultural bit wrong, you will lose them," Lawrence said. "We make sure we have the strongest candidates for each role."
She added that the company also briefs staff on the values and processes of the three properties. "If we provide more education from the outset, it is more likely they will stay."
Crucially, it is not just about ticking boxes; it is about having a two-way conversation. So, Dorchester employees also measure the company on what it is doing for them.
"We have halved the number of leavers through soft benefits, such as reward schemes," said Lawrence. "Be honest and keep to your promises. Do what is right for you as a business and don't copy everyone else."
After the recent merger at CH&Co, Gilbert faces a stiff challenge to bring the two workforces together quickly. The HR team is gauging staff perceptions by sending messages out via email and text asking for feedback, but appraisals are having to be rethought.
"Because of the sheer numbers, how can you do an annual appraisal?" asked Gilbert. "We are doing away with it, except for senior managers. We are now going for bi-monthly check-ins. It is a simple but quick way to manage and gauge performance," said Gilbert.
Employees today want a good work-life balance, but how can companies help their staff attain that?
The panel agreed that it was hard to get this right. At the Dorchester, they try to solve it by bringing outside activities into the business.
"Junior members don't want to pay £10 to go to yoga after working a long shift, so we offer a yoga club," explained Lawrence. "There is also a choir and Thirsty Thursdays drinks one day a month to create camaraderie. These are soft benefits to bring outside life into work, but we have seen an improvement on the data."
At Big Easy, Rockey acknowledged that restaurant hours are unsociable. As a result, the company is relaxed about staff swapping shifts among themselves to suit home demands. He added that many employees are foreign and have few local friends, so for them work and social life become one and a good atmosphere is likely to make them stay longer.
Long and unsociable shifts also have to be managed by CH&Co, said Gilbert. "It is a myth that contract catering is 7am to 3pm. Those days have gone, except at head office. We are a 24/7 business."
What CH&Co can offer staff is part-time work or split roles. Even operating directors are allowed flexibility.
"They work long hours, but we trust them to get the job done. If they need to take time off for a school sports day, they can. It's about give and take," she explained.
Soft benefits were also highlighted as a means to keep the mood upbeat. The Dorchester Group, for instance, stages big events such as the BBQ summer party, but it also celebrates individual success through publicly recognising good work every month.
How important is a CSR policy to staff?
Generation Y expect a lot from life and care about the environment. They will also soon account for 75% of the workforce, so for the panellists having a solid CSR policy was a no-brainer.
Most CSR policies support charities as well as environmental programmes. But there was some discussion on the practicality of letting staff choose their own causes.
"We have 675 people working at the Dorchester, and so have too many people to enable that. Instead, each hotel supports one charity," explained Lawrence. "But we do support employees if they want to raise money for a personal charity outside work. Ultimately, if you understand why they support that charity, you then get to know your people. It is a correlation between what is going on in their life."
Are engagement issues the same for large and small companies?
The feeling was that the problems are the same for both large and small companies, but how they approach them is different.
For example, at a small company such as Big Easy, managers don't have to wait for monthly reports.
"You can see or feel the mood quickly," said Rockey. We are a small business and don't have a big budget, so for us it is about doing a walk-around and saying hello. Staff appreciate the fact we talk to them."
So how can engagement strategies be moved forward?
Gilbert reckoned it was time to think about the next wave of workers - Generation Z. "Technology is an enabler for Generation Y, but for Generation Z it is how they think. They also want to work fewer hours and money is not a key driver. We need to find out how that works."
Lawrence agreed: "Yes. The attention span of this generation is much shorter, so engagement is going to be even more crucial."
But the simplest and most effective tool was deemed to be constant, two-way communication with line managers gathering feedback from employees and facilitating what they need.
Sunley summed up: "It's about defining your culture and making sure managers deliver it."
How to be a Best Place to Work in Hospitality
- Be clear about what standards you measure. Choose, say, five key performance indicators and either show their impact or take action to improve them.
- Keep your staff handbook simple, as operators often don't have time to read it.
- Promote retention through training. A stable team means you can drive standards instead of battling with recruitment.
- Get your managers to see the importance of doing appraisal systems. Encourage them to draw up a plan for each member of staff.
- Embed your values by bringing them alive for staff - if you promote a fun environment, organise staff events to create that ethos.
- Concentrate on improving your staff engagement scores, as these have been proved to correlate with customer satisfaction ratings.
- Get staff to help with the recruitment process and to buy into your company values.
- Involve staff in generating new ideas for the business, its culture and their welfare.
Best Places to Work in Hospitality 2016
Prove your employee engagement credentials by entering our Best Places to Work in Hospitality Awards, held in partnership with Purple Cubed.
We're on the hunt for the forward-thinking operators that will form our top 30 and be in with a chance to win the Best Employer Catey.
Entry is simple and each entrant has the benefit of a confidential staff survey, which can be used to inform people practices and improve business performance. So if you want to know what drives your employees to perform, enter the awards now.
The top 30 employers in the survey rankings will be recognised with an award for being a Best Place to Work in Hospitality - a vital differentiator when it comes to recruitment and retention.