By Andy Cook, Harbor Foodservice Restaurant Consultant Group

People don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses. A 2019 cross-industry workplace study learned that 94% of responders stay longer in jobs where they feel recognized, valued and invested. Turnover is expensive: the average cost-per-restaurant-employee is more than $5,000.

Investing the effort into staff engagement goes beyond total compensation (pay + benefits). It’s about balancing the hard science of economics with the soft science of humanities–which ultimately reinforces the economics.

In my collaborations with restaurateurs & staff across the spectrum of cuisine and operational types, I’m exposed to a variety of staff engagement tactics, the following are some of the most successful I’ve seen in action.

Stay interviews

Check in with your veteran staff to get a pulse on why (if) they are happy in their job. This is a great opportunity to work in mentorship topics and/or brainstorm improvement strategies or share business goals toward which they can contribute.

A more passive approach takes elements of the stay interview and rolls in a new option of the comment card. These can be extremely easy to execute at the unbeatable price of free by using Google FormsYou can distribute these selectively or across your whole team (through a scheduling program if you have it).

Tenure milestones

Chart the length of employment for all positions (or key positions) to identify milestone markers and use that information for targeted check-ins that will maintain the inertia of their employment. This can be easily administered by plugging them into a calendar for reminders: Andy’s one-year employment anniversary, Lisa’s 18-month thank-you check-in, etc.


If the average cook stays for 24 months. You could plan for a first-anniversary employment recognition, and calendarize six-month intervals to maintain positive inertia.

Surgical staffing

Toxic employees HAVE TO GO. Toxic employees regardless of position, status or tenure are a cancer to your business. Underperformers and unreliable staff are tumors who either need to improve or get cut out to keep the whole healthy. If you see the real potential for improvement, give them a chance, but start with blunt, detailed honesty. Chances are, this has already transpired. If so, cut them out. It will raise morale for the performers and motivate those on the bubble.


Make mentoring a whole-house effort, not just leadership to staff. This can be positional peer-to-peer, primary positions-to-support positions, and cross-positional. What shape this takes will be up to you (and them) but actively supporting these efforts can have a powerful influence on culture and identify the leaders in your midst.