Friday, July 2, 2010

Losses, Foundations and Lessons

I've been having a rough time of it, the past six weeks, raking myself over the coals for my inability to retain employees. Good, bad, or indifferent, they all seem to have decided they don't want to work for ME.

But of course, in this small town, it's an ongoing drama. I can't help but hear accounts—sometimes told With Great Relish—of the exploits of my former employees. The juvenile delinquent is going to nursing school now. Cook In Training #2 bombed out of her medical assistant training, went to work at McDonald's for awhile, drama-ed herself out of that job…I pretty much could have called it all at the time she left us, though I had hoped so much more for her.

Former counter girl is still plugging away with my competitor up the road, but the story is she is no happier there than she was here. Gotta think her problems go deeper than that she just couldn't get along with California Chef.

And, speaking of California Chef, I got the latest news on him yesterday. (This is one of those stories passed on to me With Great Relish…)

Seems Chef is no longer employed at Pizza Restaurant cum brew pub cum comedy club etc. etc. His problems began on Father's day, evidently. ( How apt, since he left us just after Mother's Day. So that gives him, what…five weeks of uneventful association with his new employer?)

The story starts with California Chef choosing to serve Cornish game hens for a Father's Day special, which he proceeds to undercook and then refuses to re-cook. Necessitating that disenchanted restaurant owner throw away fifty unservable Cornish game hens. Thereby not particularly endearing Chef to boss.

Shortly thereafter, Chef is running a dinner service, with one other cook and a dish washer assisting. Early in the service, a plate is sent back to the kitchen (not clear to me whether the customer sent it back or the server refused to take it out.) Chef throws one of his "Wait-staff-is-the-source-of-all-bad-things" hissy fits and makes a big issue out of the remaking of this particular plate. (He threw one or two of those during his tenure at the Hot Flash Café. And they are not pretty.)

This one, however, seems to be the straw that broke some camel's back—whether his or the wait staff's, I don't know. Whatever the reason, Chef chooses to embark upon a course of action calculated to have the greatest possible negative effect on those he believes have wronged him. He plugs along for a little while, by and by telling his assistant cook and the dish washer that, since it's not busy, they can go home and he'll take care of the kitchen by himself. He then proceeds to let the dining room fill up with guests before he walks out , leaving the restaurant with no one at all manning the kitchen.

Wow. The boy knows how to make a point.

So now I wonder.

Should I really be beating myself up over the fact that employees are deserting the Hot Flash Cafe like rats from a sinking ship? Or should I be patting myself on the back that I managed to hold together a rag-tag band of misfits and turn them into at least a semi-functional, mildly effective team, for as long as I did? After all, I held Chef in check for almost a year, and he did give proper notice when he decided to leave. Cook #2 worked for me for almost 2 years, which is by far the longest period in her young life that she has ever stuck with anything.

I think I don't give myself enough credit. When everything started to fall apart, I began to believe we had merely been lucky that we'd enjoyed that stretch of time—nearly two years!—where we had amassed a group of a half-dozen long-term employees. Now, though, I think it was more than just luck. It took plenty of skill: choosing battles, soothing egos, playing up strengths, maneuvering around weaknesses, walking the fine line between managing people and letting the inmates run the prison.

I like to think I haven't lost the knack…but there is a certain amount of bringing the right people together before we can make it happen again. And I think that's getting harder, especially in the tiny, shallow labor pool of this small town. Once you shoot through the available talent (such as it is), it takes a while for the pool to refill. We experienced the "empty labor pool" phenomenon right after we bought the restaurant. Maybe we'll just have to go through that same cycle, over and over, every x-number of years.

Won't that be fun?

But perhaps the problem was, to a certain extent, my own fault. I rocked the boat. I made the mistake of trying to change things too much. Perhaps I would still have most of the people I've lost in the past year if I had never tried to haul my quirky little business to the "next level." If I had never entertained those fantasies of what the presence of California Chef could do for us. My staff was perfectly content with the level we were on. I knew that…and it drove me crazy. But in the end, maybe they were right. As it turned out, the "next level" chewed us up and spit us out. Because here we are, perched squarely back on that same old level, feeling lucky to be here at all…and with almost no staff left to tell the tale. Sigh!

So maybe I've learned something.

And maybe The Universe will be kind enough to send me two or three good people upon whom I can test my newfound knowledge. The knowledge that change is not always necessary. Or good. Or even possible.

I get it.



Cynthia said...

I still keep up with some of my old recruiting newsletters and journals. One of them said that the average job tenure among 21 - 35 year olds in this country is now two years. It's not just your business. I really think employment attitude and changes are cultural.

JACKIE said...

There's a promo for a fix it/decorate program on PBS that says a lot. "......learn to have a fun filled and interesting life...." Well, that's great as far as it goes. But, you reach a point where it may not be much fun and it may not be ineresting but you have to do it anyway.

If somebody buys into the it has to be fun and interesting or it isn't worth doing then they will be in for major disappointments.