On the Line / Retention / How to Fire a Restaurant Employee

How to Fire a Restaurant Employee

Firing isn’t fun, but it’s a necessary part of running a restaurant. Handle it with tact, empathy, and a good process.

employees in a restaurant kitchen

DISCLAIMER: This content is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal, accounting, tax, HR, or other professional advice. You are responsible for your own compliance with laws and regulations. You should contact your attorney or other relevant advisor for advice specific to your circumstances.

Even if you find yourself short-staffed in the face of a historically tight labor market, you still might need to let a restaurant employee go. Maybe you’ve already had to.

Hiring and managing staff come with their own sets of challenges, but firing an employee can get messy. The employee might be a popular member of the team, a friend to many. At the end of the day, though, you need to do what’s right for your business and your team. Without making necessary cuts and letting go of unproductive or unruly employees, you’ll lose money, quality of service could slip, and you won’t be able to grow your restaurant the way you need to.

Knowing when and how to fire employees will help you keep your restaurant running.

Rewind to the Hiring Process

Hiring is where it all starts. If you can hold your team to high hiring standards, you’ll avoid the wrong team members before they even walk in your door.

During the hiring process, do your research on qualified candidates. Make sure they share references from past employers, then check in with these references. Ask them about the candidate’s time there. How did they work with other staff? Any red flags? Were they driven and eager to learn? A previous employer will be able to give you that extra gauge of a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses.

Set expectations with candidates before handing over that offer letter. Be honest about what it takes to do the job. Make sure you articulate exactly what the job involves and what responsibilities they could grow into. You don’t want to onboard someone only to find out they don’t have the skills to do the job well or that they’re surprised (and then likely frustrated) by what the role asks of them.

Lay Out Your Policies and Expectations

Another way to set yourself up for success — and protect your business — is to develop a restaurant employee handbook and share it with your employees from the start. A handbook should clearly lay out all of your restaurant’s policies and expectations. Things like workplace culture, harassment policies, and rules of operation. It’ll help everyone get on the same page about acceptable and unacceptable workplace actions and behaviors, roles and responsibilities, and more.

Be clear about the consequences of unacceptable actions and behaviors. Set up a system of verbal and written warnings, suspensions, and termination if unacceptable actions or behaviors continue. By sharing these guidelines with your team and even asking for their help creating them, you open up the opportunity for employees to hold each other accountable.

When to Fire an Employee

Reasons for letting a restaurant employee go will vary, and some cases will make the decision easier than others.

There’ll be times when you need to fire an employee on the spot. Actions like stealing from the restaurant and engaging in threatening or hostile behavior toward a coworker or guest are intolerable and should result in immediate termination.

There might also be times where you need to lay off employees for financial reasons. One day you might realize you can’t afford to keep on as many employees as you have on your team. Or that the number of customers coming in can’t justify the number of employees. The numbers might lead you to a decision to let people go, but the hard data won’t make it any easier, especially if you’re forced to cut strong team members. Cutting back on shifts is your first option here, but sometimes you’ve gotta make the hard calls to stay alive.

Outside of those more extreme circumstances, a termination is usually rooted in an employee’s behavior and actions.

Ryan Egozi is the director of operations at SuViche Hospitality Group, in Miami, FL. He shared some of the reasons why his team decides to let employees go. “For us, it’s anybody who is either unwilling or unable to do the job as we’ve laid out or someone who’s your typical ‘complainer’ — these folks tend to lack the personal accountability we require. It’s time to let someone go if they’ve exhausted their ‘three strikes,’ or if they perform some egregious act like theft, harassment, etc. Some of the reasons we let people go are failure to learn, culture-opposite attitude, lack of attention, inability or lack of a desire to learn, repeated failures, and poor judgment and conduct.”

Before Firing, Start With Warnings

Terminations based on an employee’s actions, behavior, and conduct are most common, but they should never come without warning or an opportunity to improve.

If you fire an employee and they’re completely surprised, that’s a sign that you and your management team haven’t done your job. Learn from experiences like those, and create a system built on feedback and regular employee reviews. This will help to get rid of surprises and give team members a chance to get back on track if their performance or behavior has been dipping.

It’s better to give hired employees opportunities to improve than fire them and spend time and resources searching for, hiring, and training new employees.

SuViche has a system in place to organize their team around employee reviews, warnings, and terminations. Ryan told us, “We have a process of documentation and classifying behaviors, actions, and issues so the team members understand they can make mistakes and have opportunities to improve.”

He continued, “Generally, someone won’t be terminated without having three issues from the same category occur within a select time frame (depending on the actual infraction). That being said, there are extenuating circumstances and events which call for immediate termination. We coach, teach, and document every step, so it’s clear not only to that team member but to the rest of the team that we’re invested in the growth and improvement of each individual. But not at the cost of the team’s efficiency, morale, and unity.”

Performance reviews give you a chance to offer clear steps for improvement and underline what you expect from employees. In many cases, an honest performance review can light a fire and get people moving.

As you provide performance reviews, don’t forget to document. Document employees’ performance, any conversations and performance reviews, and verbal and written warnings. This will help to cut out any sense of surprise, but it could also help defend your actions legally. Most restaurant employees are “at-will,” meaning that either the employer or the employee is free to end the relationship at any time. But documentation of performance, warnings, and behaviors is evidence to prove lawful termination if a fired employee should ever decide to pursue a lawsuit.

How to Have a Termination Conversation

If you’ve given an employee chance after chance to improve, there’s not much else you can do. You’ve done your best. It’s time to let them go. You don’t want your restaurant wasting precious time, resources, and money on someone who isn’t cutting it. Here are a few tips on letting employees go with grace and tact.

Choose the right time and setting.

When firing an employee, do it behind closed doors in a private setting. Firing someone out in the open, in front of others, is embarrassing to the employee but also not great for the morale of the rest of your team.

There might be cases where you need to call the team member and let them know over the phone to avoid causing a scene. But try to do it face-to-face, even though it might be uncomfortable. It’s a sign of courtesy.

Keep your cool.

When firing an employee, there’s always the chance they’ll get upset. You need to remain calm and collected. Don’t falter or rise to match their level of emotion should they get angry or upset.

Practice empathy.

Even if an employee didn’t perform or work out the way you hoped they would, don’t get mean. It won’t do you or them any good.

Ryan Egozi has some words of advice here. “Honesty is the best policy. The key here is to not make the team member feel like they failed and having them understand that the job may just not be a good fit. Straightforward and honest is my advice. If you’ve been transparent in the process of documentation, coaching, and leading, the termination will be an inevitability. I say this often: ‘We don’t fire anyone, they fire themselves.’ And that’s very true to this day. Team members have complete control over their tenure. If at any point their presence or employment detracts from the greater good, it’s usually time for a change. Our focus during terminations is to keep a friendly and open relationship, and hopefully promote that person from team member to guest.”

Be clear.

When you meet with the employee, tell them they’re being fired right at the start. Don’t lead into it with small talk. If you were in their position, you probably wouldn’t want to chit-chat about the weather before hearing the news.

Clearly explain the specific actions, behaviors, or reasons that led you to make the decision. Point to examples of exactly how they violated business policies or guidelines.

Be firm and clear in your delivery, and lay out next steps. Provide a specific date when the termination will take effect. Answer any questions relating to their last paycheck. Explain any benefits they’ll receive upon termination.

Be honest with the rest of the team.

To keep things calm and morale strong, talk to the rest of your team after letting an employee go. This will give you an opportunity to explain the situation and lay out the reasoning behind the termination but also underline how their work and performance is on track. It could be a good opportunity to boost morale and bring the team together around a difficult experience.

Answer any questions the team might have, and detail how the change might affect them in both the short-term and the long-term.

By treating the departing employee and the firing process respectfully and tactfully, you’ll build trust and respect with your team.

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