When Is it Time to Fire a Bad Worker?

It’s easy to understand why restaurateurs hang on to less-than-ideal employees.

With the growth of fast casual restaurants and unemployment at historical lows, the labor pool has grown increasingly shallow. The crackdown on undocumented workers and teenagers also hasn’t helped. A decade ago, 45% of those between the ages of 16 and 19 worked in the restaurant industry. Today, it’s 30% , according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Keeping a poor worker based on the adage “someone is better than no one” may be a sensible short-term stop gap but certainly not beyond a few weeks. Unhappy workers can alienate guests and poison morale at the restaurant. Still, how do you know when to cut the cord or try more ways to help the employee become a better work version of him or herself? Restaurant pros, including those who recently hired a spate of workers for new restaurants, weigh in.

GEORGE MADZHIROV

CEO and founder of HandCut Foods in Chicago

Backstory: Has opened several restaurants, including Twain. Trained in Europe and on the West and East Coasts, spending time at the Four Seasons and Kimpton® Hotels

“When someone stops contributing to the organization’s success and becomes a damaging factor to the company’s culture, work environment or financial performance, it is my responsibility as a leader to let that person go. We attract great talent and carefully onboard our team members, making sure they are a good fit and have all the training and tools to be successful at their job. So usually we do not come across clear-cut cases of dismissal. We have great retention. I attribute it to being transparent about company goals, achievements and challenges. Such an approach ensures buy-in and mission to metric of most team members. Also, encouraging our employees to express themselves, challenge and state ambition. We’re a young, dynamic and fast-growing company. Roles and organizational structure have needed to adapt along with those changes. It has been my responsibility, and my own expectation of myself, to articulate these changes and transition people into new roles successfully. What decides if someone stays or not is that individual’s desire to grow professionally, adapt with the needs of the company and continue to contribute.”

ALEX ZUPANCIC

CEO and Co-owner of the Last Call Tavern Group

Backstory: Founded in 2014, Last Call Tavern Group operates seven establishments in Chicago, including the recently opened The Reveler.

“Letting a staff member go is our least favorite thing to do as an employer and not a decision we take lightly. Our priority is to follow the law and our employees’ rights. Next, we consider the tenure of the employee and their individual circumstances. Given the nature of our business, employees are not numbers, but rather family, and we like to take a personal approach to handle each situation. It’s important we set initial expectations upon hiring a new employee so there’s less room for confusion and error on either side. We have weekly meetings with management which then flows down directly to their staff. We have regular performance reviews with employees, offer continuing education and training, and always keep open lines of communication. We try to work through issues with employees as often as we can. Due to a shortage of qualified employees in the market, we work even closer with our new hires to try to prevent issues and be proactive when an issue arises. We have probably been more lenient over the years for this reason. It’s been key to create long-term connections with the employees to ensure retention along with competitive financial compensation.”

MOLLY HOPPER SANDROF

Director of People and Staff Development for Garrett Harker’s restaurant group in Boston

Backstory: Handles human resources at Eastern Standard, Row 34, Island Creek Oyster Bar, The Hawthorne and the Branch Line.

“We never want terminations to be a surprise to the employee or any fellow managers. To achieve this outcome, we use very measured approaches of course correction, communication (both verbal and written) and documentation. We do train all managers on delivering feedback and coaching. When coaching an employee, we often encourage that two managers sit with an employee. This helps the employee receive two perspectives and may remove personality conflicts between two people. We discuss expectations with the individual during the hiring process, as part of onboarding, throughout training and at the conclusion of training. Then, we act swiftly if an employee seems to not understand the expectations associated with their position. We use every tool at our disposal to help an employee work through issues. These tools could include additional training, support from other managers, change in schedule or area of responsibility, access to appropriate counselors or professionals and also the opportunity to define their own strategy for solving problems.”

TRAVIS CHRISTOPHERSON

Director of Operations for Levy Restaurants at Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois

Backstory: More than 20 years in restaurants and health and wellness, opening Applebee’s restaurants and Lifetime Fitness clubs.

Before you go down that road, make sure you’ve given that person every opportunity to succeed. I look at it from two areas. Have they quit the job and keep showing up or are they engaged in what they are supposed to be doing? The other thing I look at is have you done your job as a manager or a leader to be successful? Is this employee damaging the overall team? Is working with the employee an addition or subtraction? Is the time you’re spending taking away from the business and hurting it? Are you going to be losing respect as a manager if you carry someone along who isn’t performing? There are so many measurable components to our business. Look at performance: how are the prime costs going? How are sales going? Looking at the nuts and bolts of the business and what’s affecting costs is a real indicator. The numbers don’t lie; they tell a story. For example, if the employee is a bar manager, is he struggling with costs? Put a plan and start impacting the numbers of where you fall short. If you don’t see an increase in effort or an interest in improving, that’s when you make that decision.”