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Winning the War for Talent with a Great Referral Program

“Being good is not good enough anymore” Those words come from Donald Burns, a longtime hospitality professional who now consults restaurants on everything from branding, to menu design to team development. Burns was born into the restaurant business (his grandmother owned a diner, and his father was a corporate chef at John Q Hamm hotels) […]

“Being good is not good enough anymore”

Those words come from Donald Burns, a longtime hospitality professional who now consults restaurants on everything from branding, to menu design to team development. Burns was born into the restaurant business (his grandmother owned a diner, and his father was a corporate chef at John Q Hamm hotels) and built several restaurants until he was scooped up by Wolfgang Puck to set up Puck’s restaurants and catering units.

Needless to say, Burns has plenty of experience in building teams for restaurants. He says sometimes, restaurants take experience too seriously in hiring.

“In my experience, attitude and personality trump experience any day,” says Burns. “It doesn’t matter if someone has experience, if they aren’t high-energy, why would I hire them?”

When he’s consulting restaurants, Burns always tells owners to look outside the industry. There might be a great retail employee, or just someone with a customer-service oriented personality who could be a great fit for a restaurant, but the owner doesn’t even think to ask.

In his years in the business, Burns has seen several tactics owners use to build a team, starting with the old trick of posting “help wanted” signs, to daily Craigslist postings. Though Craigslist was great at first, says Burns, “it’s become oversaturated, and spammy of sorts, and sometimes the restaurants posting can seem uneven in their messaging.” Burns says HotSchedules Recruit is great, because it allows owners to post jobs and to always be recruiting.

“The problem with the majority of owners is they only recruit when they need people. You should always be trying to upgrade, which is where the networking is key. Good isn’t good enough anymore; you need to be outstanding.”

A major key in the “always be recruiting” concept is to build a solid referral program. For his restaurants, Burns relies on a three-tiered referral program that helps to ensure that his places of business are hiring quality candidates, and keeping them for long periods of time.

The program breaks down like this: If a referral is hired, the person who made the referral scores $25. If the employee makes it to the 90 day mark, another $25 drops into the referring person’s bank. And finally, if an employee makes it six months, well that’s another $75.

“It’s not enough just to interview them,” Burns says.

Burns is quick to remind us that the dollar amount can be scaled to the position; obviously, a general manager hire is just a little different than a server. There’s a difference between hiring a strategic position and hiring for depth. The $25 strategy can also help in building a referral pipeline for restaurants in college towns. Burns says in those areas he focuses on fraternities and sororities; many have natural customer service instincts and there’s a large new crop of people every year to refer from.

Money isn’t always a motivating factor, however. For someone who consistently refers people, you could always carry the caveat of letting that person choose which night they have off.

Additionally, Burns is working with a Yogurt concept that offers a life skills series to help younger employees learn skills they might not learn otherwise. If employees are there for one year, they are eligible for a $5,000 or $10,000 scholarship. It might not be “straight cash” for these high schoolers, but they’ll appreciate it when their debt is lessened post-college.

In closing, Burns has five keys in building a referral program:

Get Creative with referrals

Burns used concert tickets for employees of his who would refer potential employees and other caveats.

Be consistent

Treat recruiting like a full-time job

Pay out what you say you will

If you promise a payout on a referral, but don’t pay it out, it fragments the team. Keep their trust by paying what you promise, and paying it on-time.

Think outside the box with recruiting

Don’t just look at the restaurant industry- find potential employers at the VA, or colleges.

When using social media, be creative

Make sure your social media marketing is consistent. Remember, pictures are worth 1,000 words.

Check out our other blogs to learn more about the power of recruiting and referrals:

Looking Ahead: 2016 Technology Trends For Restaurants

The Restaurant Coach: How To Hire Smarter

Need To Hire? Look Within First

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