How To Manage Employee Conflicts In Your Restaurant
Whether in good or bad times, the potential for personality crashes is always a possibility. The Bureau of Labor and statistics reported a 78.6% turnover rate in the accommodation and food services industry in 2019, with ⅔ of the restaurant industry laid off in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Those numbers are alarming and pose a challenge to restaurateurs faced with the losses that accompany hiring and onboarding new staff. Knowing how to manage employee conflicts in your restaurant is vital to your long term success.
Why Do Employee Conflicts Happen in Restaurants?
Employee conflicts can happen anywhere. The nature of restaurant work though, makes for an especially fertile ground for the possibility of disagreement. Let’s explore a few reasons why that might be:
- Close quarters – More often than not, restaurants are physically cramped, reserving space for patronage and leaving less to staff. There is working closely, and then there is working in tight quarters, which can lead to tension.
- Potentially extreme environments – There is a reason we all recognize the intent behind the phrase, “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Hot temperatures can affect your mood and productivity, which can put people on edge.
- Fast-paced – Restaurant work is fast. Table turns are the name of the game, so the faster you can get food out to customers without sacrificing quality, the more likely you are to be able to increase your bottom line. But high speed and expectation often lead to more anxiety, which can overwhelm employees at all levels of authority.
- Potential for rude customers – If you work with the public, you’re almost certainly going to encounter difficult and possibly rude customers. Rudeness is toxic and can impact employees that are dealing with difficult situations.
Division of Labor
Suppose you have four stations in your kitchen and two line cooks of equal ability, Gary and Steve. Gary and Steve both covet one particular station, and fight over who gets to run it. Gary has been in the industry for decades, while Steve is a relative newcomer; Gary feels like he should get it due to his tenure, but Steve is ambitious. Both are equally qualified and capable.
What management and the rest of the staff need is someone to consistently handle different situations, whether you rotate Gary or Steve or invite a third person in to tend to one or the other responsibility. Your customer definitely doesn’t care about what’s going on behind the scenes –outside of quality and consistency– and these types of slow downs can adversely impact their decision to return.
The obvious choice here is to mediate the situation, assigning Gary and Steve to the appropriate stations. Irrespective of who receives what assignment, the end result necessitates quality to satisfy customer demands. Fortunately, kitchen automation tools like kitchen display systems (KDS) and recipe viewers help staff new and old to receive the information that they need to do their jobs with minimal oversight. For operators who oversee multiple locations, real time analytics applications afford users the ability to remotely view restaurants to monitor for pinch points as they happen.
Where the Gary and Steve situation underscores the importance of teamwork in completing a task, staff interdependency can yield its own share of problems. Suppose now that two employees, Jessica, a hostess, and Christopher, a former host and current server, have a close working relationship. In this scenario, Jessica may rely on Christopher for his experience and overall knowledge of the front-of-house (FOH) operations, capitalizing on his time more and more to satisfy her responsibilities.
You can see the problem here already: Jessica is taking up too much of Christopher’s time, which in turn takes away from his own responsibilities. That has the cascade effect of slowing down every other point of contact that Christopher makes, from backing up the kitchen with orders that haven’t gone out, to lower guest satisfaction.
While it is heartening to see coworkers support one another, Jessica’s reliance on another staff member decreases the overall efficiency of the operation, and robs her of the opportunity for independent learning. As an operator, your first step is in identifying the weak links in your chain, which you can do often through anecdotal evidence, but more succinctly by employing 360 degree feedback as needed. You can support your findings with data analytics, some of which can be pulled from your KDS.
If the common denominator is that one employee is not putting in their best work, speak with your staff member, but do it in a way where the employee feels seen. Ask if they feel what they feel their strengths are and move them accordingly, unless the problem persists.
Personality clashes are an unavoidable aspect of any workplace. In this example, Sarah is a perky optimist, and Emily is a cynical pragmatist, both two very different attitudes towards the world. Neither are bad employees and both get their work done, but their differences prove overwhelming and there is often a palpable tension between the two. That stress leads to a decrease in productivity, as they spend time venting grievances that are unrelated to the actual task at hand.
While you can’t really make people like one another, you can mitigate whether or not they work together. Try not to pick a side unless someone has broken a rule or created an unnecessary problem; your staff isn’t paid to be friends, but they are expected to get things done as efficiently as possible. You can use scheduling tools to make sure that they are in different places at different times. Try data analytics if you need to demonstrate lags in service due to distraction.
Sometimes it’s not just getting the work done, but how you do it. While we addressed differences in attitude above, this is more in how the figurative sausage is made. Take Jeff and Tim, both servers. In this example, they are both tasked with folding napkins during downtimes as prep for rush times. Suppose you have a standard for what you want, but no specific definition of how napkins are to be folded, and the two disagree over the best way to reach that outcome. Maybe it’s the way that someone literally picks it up and does the work? Maybe it’s the speed or the gestures involved. Maybe it’s something else, which is the most likely outcome.
Whatever the case, the best outcome is to address these issues head on and set expectations appropriately. If the work is getting done, address anyone upset by style calmly and kindly, because this is likely relative to a personality issue, although not quite the same thing.
It’s important for employees to recognize the differences between objective and subjective opinions in style, between the prescribed way and their personal preference. If it’s an ongoing concern, figure out what the best style is and if it saves time, you can implement a policy going forward to identify your improved approach. Add that to your employee handbook literature, so that you can standardize the process in the future.
Taking criticism is never easy, but it’s important to start with yourself. Sometimes the common denominator is you. If not that, then consider your hiring and vetting process, or training policies, which isn’t a personality problem, but one worth investigating all the same.
Managing any operation, no matter how big or small, is a special skill that comes with a unique set of demands. In addition to the myriad challenges that you face on a day-to-day basis, part of managing is understanding your restaurant’s culture and serving as a mitigator for interpersonal conflicts.
As we mentioned above, you might consider utilizing 360-degree feedback to get a good read on where deficits in managerial style may come from, which will help you navigate possible solutions. Take criticism with a grain of salt when it’s delivered politely and put yourself in the shoes of your staff. If you can make some minor changes that enhance your employee morale, it’s worth it.
The counterpoint to inefficiencies in leadership, is a problematic staff. We’ve talked already about personality clashes and understanding restaurant culture. Surveys have indicated that 18 years old is the median age of restaurant employees. Mental and emotional maturity continues until about the age of 25, so the chances of you working with someone still sorting out the world is not only high, but likely. Your staff is likely carrying a heavy load, between secondary education, and navigating young adulthood, and those restrictions may lead to distraction or in some cases resentment. Insomuch as possible, try to allow for a healthy work/life balance, which has been shown as effective in increasing employee productivity.
It’s also possible to have a few bad eggs in the dozen, as some people struggle with authority no matter how it’s presented. If the common denominator is one or two people who (for whatever reason) just don’t like you, then have a one-on-one where you can sort out your grievances. This is just how some people are, but transparency over policy or workplace problems with your subordinates can go a long way to building a healthier environment.
There aren’t two ways about this: harassment is not to be tolerated. Harassment is meant to identify any discrimination based on sex, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, etc. It’s probably best to put something in your employee rulebook about keeping things like politics and religion out of the kitchen, as these are contentious subjects that are difficult and often inappropriate to discuss in the workplace.
As an example, if your new line cook Joe decides to call Theresa a derogatory slur, take quick and decisive action. Clear cut harassment is never okay. Not only is this the right thing to do to make sure that your staff feels welcomed irrespective of any superficial reason, but it could save you from potential legal problems later down the line.
Employee Conflict and the Coronavirus
Before we leave, it’s worth pointing out that 2020 has been an especially challenging year, from a global pandemic that has crippled economies around the world, to social protests in the U.S. and beyond. Right now, people are hurting. That’s everyone from supervision to the lowest rung on the restaurant ladder, so bear that extra stress in mind. Keep each other safe, and lift one another up; now is the time for mindfulness, empathy, and kindness.
Studies indicate that a happy employee is a better worker, so taking the time when you can to stay mindful of the needs of your staff can increase productivity and pay off at the end of the day. As you learn from these situations, build them into your employee handbook, which will not only help with your future onboarding objectives, but serve as a reminder of previous issues. While the ultimate goal is retention, if you do have to let anyone go, or if they leave the company, conduct exit interviews if you can to try and get a gauge of what worked or didn’t from an employee, noting any common patterns as you move forward.
How has the pandemic altered your course? Click the link below for our page containing helpful restaurant resources for the COVID-19 outbreak.
About the Author
Syd is a content marketing specialist, which are fancy words for writing pretty to tell a good story. He likes writing things about food, drinks, and music. He’s a musician himself, a father of two, and loves his wife a whole lot. At home, like the rest of the world right now, he’s finding time to play with the kids and create art.