In Search of the Best: Making Recruitment and Onboarding Work for You

In Search of the Best: Making Recruitment and Onboarding Work for You

By Paul Schlienz

As any Washington hospitality business owner or operator will tell you, finding and keeping great employees is not nearly as simple as it used to be. On top of the tight labor market in our state, the sharp rise in the minimum wage and other new labor costs make the productivity of each and every employee more important than ever.

This pressure on HR departments means that savvy restaurateurs and hoteliers are very strategic in their recruitment practices and are paying attention to how they integrate new employees into their teams.

It’s All About Attitude

Hospitality is about being hospitable, and industry employers will tell you that they are looking for those giving, empathetic people who really do care about serving guests.

“We want to be hiring people who are passionate about service and happy to be paid for it, versus people who just look at hospitality as a convenient way to make living,” said Michael Hirschler, director of human resources at Four Seasons Seattle. “Our judgment is not so much whether somebody gives a textbook answer. It’s whether they’re sincere and if they match up with our organization’s values. And we ask if ourselves if they are adding something to our organization that’s missing.”

And it’s not just hoteliers who think this way.

“Hard skills are something we can train,” said Brian Moreno, co-owner of several McDonald’s franchises in Eastern Washignton. “What I’m looking for when I interview a prospective employee centers around how they look at others. I look for people who have been involved with teams, and it’s always a plus when I see that they have done volunteer work in the community. Empathy is important.”

It’s also all about attitude for Heather Rodgers-Toy, director of employee engagement at the Seattle-based Heavy Restaurant Group, which owns and operates several King County restaurants, including Purple Cafe and Wine Bar, Barrio Mexican Kitchen, Lot No. 3, The Commons Kitchen and Bar and Meet the Moon.

“You can train a skill set, but you can’t train attitude,” said Rodgers-Toy. “We look for great attitude, team players and quick learners. There are some exceptions to that rule, like sous chef, where we look for experience. That’s also true for managers, but generally we are on the lookout for those important soft skills for prospective employees.”

Tanya Fraioli, co-owner of Seattle’s La Vita E’ Bella and Woodinville’s Vivi Pizzeria, also focuses on soft skills.

“We try to hire young people who don’t necessarily know what they want to do with life, but have a positive outlook and really like hospitality,” said Fraioli. “Of course, it depends on the position, but generally speaking, you hire for the attitude. This is an industry where you can learn to do things quickly.”

In interviews, Fraioli tries to find out what makes a prospective employee tick and what their interests are.

“We find that people don’t stay in jobs a long time, so you really need to go beyond looking at their job history,” said Fraioli. “We want to know what their goals are. What is their story? If a cook, do they enjoy food and cooking at home? With someone who’s applying for a server position, we’ll ask questions about their experiences with servers.”

Recruiting the Best

How do you find those great employees? Horizon Hospitality Associates, Inc., a Kansas-based hospitality industry recruiting firm, suggests trying one of the oldest and proven recruiting methods: getting your great employees to refer other employees. There is, after all, much less chance of making a bad hire when you can you can get recommendations from your best people.

Let your employees know that you’re looking for people who might be good fits for your business, not merely someone who needs work. Providing a financial incentive or reward when referrals are hired encourages those referrals. A smart practice is to pay a portion of the reward when the new employee starts working for your company, and then pay the remainder of the incentive after the new employee has been on the job for a pre-established time period.  (Be sure to make these terms clear when you promote your referral program to your team).

Fraioli finds that employee referrals work well for her restaurants’ staffing needs.

“We have a lot of younger kids who are in high school or college,” said Fraioli. “We tell them to refer their friends. They’re my little recruiters. They can make excellent money, upwards of $20 per hour. They’re really happy. And when their friends see that, it looks like a very attractive proposition to them.”

Fraioli also has another nifty trick for finding potential employees: connect with tech-loving Millennials, who value convenience and live much of their lives through their smartphones.

“I came to the hospitality industry from the corporate world where everyone sends resumes,” Fraioli recalled. “At first, I tried this with our restaurants, but I was only getting a small number of applications. Then I started asking people to text me if interested in an interview in our job advertisements. My response rate jumped astronomically by making it easy as possible for people to respond.”

Heavy Restaurant Group has embraced technology in a major way in its recruiting efforts, which are entirely online although personal contact still plays a central role.

“Our restaurant managers sit down with online applications,” said Rodgers-Toy. “If they see someone with an interesting background, they call them. Having a conversation with them is very important.”

Hirschler finds one of his biggest challenges in finding and hiring employees for the busy summer season.

“It’s always tough to hire seasonally,” said Hirschler. “We look at student population – not just colleges, but also at high schools, like Chief Sealth, in Seattle, which has a great hospitality program. We try to do more than just follow traditional recruiting paths. We try to look at some different options.”

Hirschler urges employers to maintain relationships with seasonal hires who work out well.

“It’s a matter of a relationship,” Hirschler said. “If you create a good relationship with an employee, you’ll be wise to hold on to that person. If you’re dealing with a student who’s working seasonally and really works out well, make sure that you maintain the relationship. If that student is graduating, offer permanent employment.”

Moreno finds that the tight labor market has had a major effect on his recruiting.

“The market has changed,” said Moreno. ” We can’t be as picky as we used to be. How do we even attract people to apply? When I do get people in for an interview, I look at body language. I look at people who say ‘we’ more than ‘I.’ It’s a real red flag for me if I ask someone why they applied, and they tell me, ‘Well, I want money.'”

Moreno is seeing major changes in employee expectations of what they will get out of the work experience if they are hired.

“Things have changed for big brands like McDonald’s,” he added. There’s been a shift toward transportable skills in the job market. People are looking for jobs with transportable skills that you can take from one employer to another. Young people know how hard the working world really is, so they’re looking for those skills that will give them an advantage wherever they go.”

Getting Onboarded

Now that you’ve found a potentially great employee and hired that person it is time for onboarding, which is the process of training and bringing a new hire up to speed with everything they need to know to become a productive member of your team.

Moreno remembers that his old training system was to have new hires watch videos, then complete standard operating procedures. The process took at least one hour, a tremendous amount of time when considering the number of new hires each year. Eventually, the training process was simplified with short videos followed by one-on-one coaching.

“Orientation is facilitated by me,” said Moreno. “I emphasize what we do at McDonald’s, and what the expectations of our culture are. Then they get can get into learning actual skills through the process of pairing up.”

Moreno sees a trend of creating culture versus expectation. He has observed that more and more quick service restaurants now start right off connecting new hires with the values and culture of the company, even before expecting a certain level of work. Orientations like this center on creating bonds between the new hire and the organization. Once a new employee has a reason to care about his or her work, then the employer begins to educate the person on the hows, whats and whys of the job.

“The transition in the industry is embracing soft skills versus hard skills, connecting who new employees are with what they do, rather than just saying ‘This is what we do.'” said Moreno.

“Any good company has to have an effective onboarding process,” said Hirschler. “Departmental training and classroom training all play a role in onboarding. And you must keep in mind that people have different learning styles – some take longer, some take less time. A good trainer/buddy system, where new employees can learn from people who are more experienced, is essential.”

Fraioli finds it useful to give employees on-the-job training, sometimes allowing them to experience roles that are different from what their main task would be.

“If you’re hired as a server, we’ll have you buss for three weeks,” said Fraioli. “It’s a very humbling process. It has a huge impact on our serves and makes them quicker. With prep cooks, we’ll have them start out with one-on-one training by helping out the other cook.”

Heavy Restaurant Group takes a very different approach to onboarding. Like its recruiting program, it is entirely online.

“The switch to this online system makes for a more streamlined process,” said Rodgers-Toy. “We use a program called “Compete” for our in-house training. We feel it’s important. We’re in transition. It cuts down on paperwork, and it’s a very customizable program.”

“Every individual comes from a different place,” Moreno said, when reflecting on the need to meet new employees where they are to transmit a company’s culture to them during the onboarding process.

Likewise, every hospitality business comes from a different place. There are no right or wrong approaches in recruiting and onboarding that will apply to every employer. The trick is to find the methods that work best for your company and your employees.


  1. It’s all about the job description. The mission of any online job description is to capture the interest and imagination of job seekers. It shouldn’t be a recitation of all the things they’ll need to do on the job, but an opportunity for a prospect to consider if they’d be a good fit with your company. Sure, you need to describe the job, but make it more about why they would want to work with your amazing team. You can give the a full job description after an initial screening.
  2. Use your website to show why your firm is a great place to work. Think of your “About Us,” “News” and “Job Openings” pages as central to your recruitment strategy. This prime marketing real estate can tell a story that reflects your vision, values and brand. If you want employees who are looking for more than a paycheck, show them that you are looking for more than another set of hands.
  3. Be Social. When posting, tweeting or blogging, remember that your current and future employees are one of your important audiences. Social media is a place to make people feel good about your business so they’ll support it again and again. Rather than sell, sell, sell, try tooting your own horn when it comes to your great employees. Celebrate you teams and individuals, show real faces and share real stories.
  4. Use your network. Social media makes it easy for you to maintain connections and build relationships. Use it to promote opportunities so that your supporters (including current employees) can share what you need with their own friends and followers.


Your total turnover costs may be twice as high as you think. “The direct, easily measurable hard costs associated with turnover account for less than half of total costs,” according to an article in The Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration. The authors quantified the cost of the learning curve for new employees at four hotels and found that actual turnover costs included supervisor and peer disruption. Total bill for a new employee: 25 to 30 percent of the employees’ annual wage. Employers must also consider advertising and recruitment costs, time lost to training new hires, and possible cost to the brand and revenue from disengaged employees.

Cost of hiring a new front desk manager: $2,604 to $14,019*

Cost of hiring a new restaurant manager: $20,000**

Cost of hiring a new hourly restaurant/hotel employee: $2,225**

* Cornell Hospitality Quarterly

**The Council of Hotel and Restaurant Trainers

(Source: Washington Hospitality Magazine, April 2017)

Read more