The restaurant industry is a hot mess right now.
2017 was a hurricane of a year for restaurants, and it doesn’t seem like the winds of change will settle down any time soon. We’ve seen employees raise their voices in protest for livable wages, meaningful benefits, and fair ethical treatment.
Though our present is chaotic and our future uncertain, don’t worry - it’s a good thing.
When times get hard, we often look to the past for tips and clues on how to make it through. In the case of The Great Restaurant Shakedown of 2017, we need look no further than The Founding Fathers of The United States.
In 1791, as young America was setting out on her own from under the tyrannous grasp of England’s rule, our Founding Fathers drafted The Bill of Rights to ensure the protection of certain unalienable rights and liberties against government infringement. 227 years later, it remains the preeminent document outlining the rights of the American people.
The restaurant industry is in desperate need of a similar employee Bill of Rights to protect the professional rights and civil liberties of restaurant employees, and I think it’s high time we created one. Working in conditions like these, it’s no wonder our industry has one of the highest turnover rates in the game.
Creating an employee Bill of Rights for your restaurant is, above all, good for business, as it ensures employees that the management genuinely cares about their personal and professional wellbeing. You have the power to reduce (and potentially eliminate) employee turnover, call-outs, rehiring costs, workplace tension, poor performance, poor treatment of customers from angry unappreciated staff… the list goes on.
Let’s dive into a few of the big ticket items you might include in your own Restaurant Employee Bill of Rights. We've also created an employee Bill of Rights template for you to make your own; fill it in with the values that matter most to you and your staff, and hang it proudly for all to see!
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You have the right to be paid a fair wage.
Compensation is determined by a variety of factors, and not all positions (or employees in those positions) will be compensated the same way. You have a right to be paid fairly according to the laws in your state, as well as what you bring to the table in terms of value.
For example, plenty of culinary talent can cook well, but not a lot of culinary talent can run a profitable restaurant P&L statement and successfully manage a restaurant team. If you come in, do the bare minimum, and don’t ever go above and beyond or show ambition, don’t expect to see a bigger paycheck in your future. Asking for a raise without bringing more value to the brand is a sign of entitlement.
You have the right to not be taken advantage of.
It’s very important to set expectations with regard to someone’s role. Many employees in the restaurant industry don’t ever have a real job description beyond: just do whatever it takes.
Some owners are very clear of what they expect from you; you should also be confident in what you can expect from them. Reasonable, transparent expectations are needed for long-term success.
In a restaurant, things can get crazy at times and there will definitely be tasks you are asked to perform that might fall outside your normal “job title”. Nothing wrong with jumping in on dishes on a busy night. Being paid a server wage, and then being expected to wash dishes too so the owner can save the money, however, is not okay.
You have the right to voice your concerns.
In this business, you may find yourself witnessing things that will make you question the behavior of others, and maybe even yourself. You need to step up and voice your concerns. This can easily be done in a mature, professional way without placing blame or shame on others.
If you are a line cook and you hear another cook make a rude comment about a server, you have a duty as an ethical human being to say something. Draw the line and say you don’t appreciate language that degrades others. If that person is you sometimes... stop it now.
The restaurant industry has some negative energy that we must change if we want to become a viable employment option for new generations. How do we change an industry? One person at a time. That starts with you.
You have the right to not like people you work with.
The big misconception about teamwork is that you have to like everyone you work with. Not true. You don’t have to like the people you work with, but you must be respectful toward all the people you work with.
Sure, some people you work with might become your friends; don’t use this as a crutch to avoid talking to others or get clique-y. You’re not going to get along with everyone all of the time; that’s a fact of life. In a restaurant, staff tend to come from a variety of different backgrounds, and not everyone will want to hang out and talk about the game last night.
Remember: To each their own. Look at the skills and strengths a person who works with you brings to the team. Celebrate that. Celebrate diversity. Celebrate that you all are working toward a common goal... of wowing your guests and creating a memorable dining experience.
You have the right to not work in fear.
Nothing is worse than working in a state of fear and intimidation. Thankfully, the “old school” managers who favor these management tactics are a dying breed, yet they are still out there clinging to outdated techniques like “break them down and build them up” mindsets.
Listen: when you break people down, you just end up with broken people. Having people afraid while working in your organization is a recipe for failure. You might as well install a revolving door in the back for the staff that will come and go quickly.
Fear breeds negativity, and you cannot build a successful restaurant brand on fear and negativity. Those two elements are the main ingredients in the recipe for a toxic culture. Sure, you might know of a few brands that have done OK that are known for a culture of fear, but be honest, they limp along and are always stuck. They will never break through the negative force field that is keeping them in a perpetual “groundhog day” scenario.
You have the right to call in if you are truly sick.
There will be days when you are sick as a dog, with a fever, nausea, or maybe worse. Please don’t go to work. Part of being in the restaurant industry is its connection to food safety. Being sick sucks, but bringing that to work and risking getting others sick is irresponsible.
Don’t fall prey to using the sick day as an excuse. Yes, you had a few drinks last night and you had a pretty bad headache this morning, but you made that adult decision on your own, and the consequences are yours to deal with. Tough, that’s on you.
You have the right to grow professionally.
It’s a safe guess that if you are reading this, then you value professional development. A great way to grow professionally is to ask for feedback on ways to improve your skills, thereby increasing your value to the brand.
Many managers you work with will say they don’t have time to train employees, that they’re too busy running a restaurant. Don’t be fooled - they have the time, but most lack the coaching or training skills, and use “lack of time” as an excuse. For the record: Time is never the real reason... it’s a lack of planning and priorities.
For many employees, professional growth opportunities are a huge reason to stay at a restaurant.
No one wants to stay in the same position for the rest of their life. If you want your employees to stick around long term, give them a reason to with career development and growth opportunities in the form of skills training and promotions. Hiring from within — meaning when you have an opening on staff, looking at your existing employee base to find suitable candidates — encourages employee loyalty and provides your restaurant with a new generation of leaders with experience and intimate knowledge of your restaurant.
So, that leaves it up to you. Yes, you are going to need to take your future in your own hands (believe me, it’s better this way). If you genuinely want to grow professionally and advance your career, you’ll need to invest some time and energy.
First off - educate yourself. Try following some restaurant industry experts, read about communication skills, listen to some podcasts. Your smartphone is more than a fancy tool to stalk your ex’s social media accounts.
All of this knowledge is worth nothing unless you do something with it. If you truly want to get to the next level, don’t be afraid to have career-oriented conversations with your manager. Ask what else you can be doing to move up the ladder, and work together to set little goals for yourself that move you closer to that BIG goal.
You have the right to walk away.
If you feel that your current work situation violates most of the items on this restaurant employee Bill of Rights, then you absolutely have the right to look for another restaurant that would be a better fit.
If we want to turn the restaurant industry around for the better, we all need to improve our level of professionalism.
Owners and managers need to treat their team with respect and have a plan for how to support employees and promote professional growth. They need to pay fairly and become leaders in their market for benefits.
Staff also need to be respectful and give their best performance consistently. Don’t show up and only give your best a few days each week. That doesn’t make you an asset to the brand, it makes you a liability.
The bottom line is that you need to make sure your work environment allows you to bring your best every day, and an employee Bill of Rights is just the tool for the job.