The First-time Worker

February labor numbers came out this week, and no surprise, the food industry is one of the leading creators of new jobs in the private sector.

While 242,000 new jobs were created in February, more than 40,000 of those jobs were created in the restaurant industry. One in five of these new restaurant jobs were filled by first-time workers.  (see “Half of QSR Jobs filled by First-time workers, promotions”, National Restaurant Association March 4, 2016)

First-time workers. Immediately that set the wheels turning in my head. I think the implications of that are profound.

If you currently own or operate a small restaurant business, you understand exactly what this means. The person that walks in your door, asking for that minimum wage job, has never had an employer.  You are their first. Most likely, you are asking them to do things they’ve never done before. This is the beginning of a relationship. Not just the relationship between you and them. It is the relationship of the newbie to the value of their work and labor. You have the chance to impact that in a positive way.

From another perspective, if you were sending that person out into the world to work for someone else, wouldn’t you like to send out a capable, well-trained individual so that our whole industry becomes stronger? Wouldn’t you like to send that person out with a strong sense of confidence in what they do, so they can grow in whatever they do, even if it isn’t being a line cook?

After all, nearly one third of all Americans say that their first working experience was in some form of food service. We are training America’s workforce in a very real way. How do we do that responsibly?

I have created a list of 6 things I think are essential to teach the newbie in the hopes of contributing to their worth as employees, for you and for others:

  • The importance of showing up!: ok, this seems obvious, right? Does the employee understand what that means? Getting to work on time, being ready to work when you get there, calling in when you are running late. You as an employer need to be strict about this or this can lead to really bad habits, even for your best worker. I have worked in places where the time and attendance is so strict that we have lost really talented people because they couldn’t be on time if their life depended on it, let alone their job. We are not like office workers; if someone shows late in the restaurant, the business can grind to a halt. Instill this sense of urgency.
  • Teamwork: Think of the best place you ever worked. Something needed to be done, you were swamped, someone stepped in and helped, you worked like a real crew. In my restaurant, lunch was a dance between cutting meat, serving customers, ringing people up, calling back to the kitchen for reinforcement. It was so much fun, my team was completely in sync. No one stood around and watched. All the best work environments from the perspective of productivity and employee satisfaction work well as a team, so it is important that they learn the value of chipping in when needed, even if  “it’s not my job”. (and teach them NEVER to use that phrase!)
  • Expectations: From the get-go, let the newbie know exactly what will be expected of them.  As part of your company’s training protocol, create a list of clear expectations for all employees, and ones that are specific to positions. For example, servers are expected to know the menu and wine list. (seems obvious but some newbies may not take this very seriously). When someone doesn’t have a clear idea of what is expected of them, they end up doing what they THINK is expected of them, and you may have very different ideas about that.
  • Giving them room to ask questions and make some mistakes: Everyone should feel that questions are welcome, and questions should be taken seriously and handled in a timely manner. So for example, if the employee has a question about their paycheck, pay attention, answer it or get them to someone who can.  (I am not a millennial, but I understand this is one work quality of this generation…they want to know “why”) When mistakes are made (and they will be), set some time aside to discuss it with them in a constructive way. Use words like, “tell me what happened” and “what do you think you could have done better“, and “how do you think we can avoid this in the future?” Give them a chance to talk. Yelling and scolding does nothing to improve anything; it fosters fear and secrecy. Unless this person does something repeatedly that you have told them repeatedly not to do, there is no point in raising your voice.
  • Listening skills: Constantly check in with your employees, new or old, and encourage them to be frank with you about their concerns. I think some employers believe that this gives the employee the mistaken  impression that they have some power or say. Work is not a democracy, but this conversation allows you to explain your policies and why you do things the way you do. This is your chance to strengthen your culture, to hone it and understand how it is being lived out everyday. And for the employee: it helps them to understand how they fit in the work equation.
  • Logistics of Getting Paid:
    •  I am shocked as a payroll manager how many people have NO understanding of the W4 or how this document  affects your pay.  And when it come to benefits, it’s the same thing.  It would be an amazing gift to a newly employed individual who has never seen this document before to have someone sit down and explain it in detail. I know, you just want to leave them alone with the new-hire paperwork for 15 minutes so you can get back to the kitchen, be done with it and get them working. Right?  This is the way so many employers handle new hire paperwork, I know. I’ve seen it. The long range effect of this: an individual who has no idea how their pay is being taxed or why, who has no idea whether the health plan they signed up for will be adequate, has no understanding of premiums or co-pays or deductibles. They work 100 hours in a pay period, look at their check and have no idea why it is so much less than they expected and they blame you.
    •  Help a newbie understand the deductions on their check and what they are for: I’ve had people come to me with questions about the MED (medicare) deduction on their check, wanting to know why we were deducting for medical but they weren’t covered.  I’ve had people complaining that our payroll company took out too much in social security and they wanted me to reimburse them. People should be versed in the lingo of their paycheck and how it works. If you can teach them this, they will be better off for the rest of their working life. They may even become better citizens.
    • Direct deposit or live checks: If you offer direct deposit, explain to them the convenience of this, and the possibility of setting up more than one account for direct deposit so they can start saving. Also let them know that if they close the account, they have to let you know well in advance.
    • Make sure they understand they need to look at their check stub each pay period and if there are any problems, they should let you know immediately. They should feel that they can come to you with any problem they have.

Imagine the implications of being someone’s first employer. Pretty heavy, huh? You may not take that too seriously, but if you do, image the impact you could have on someone’s life. Like your amazing history teacher in high school who made you love history for the rest of your life. This employee could come to remember the great leadership skills you taught him or her and become a great employer too.  Just a piece of my mind…

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