How to Retain BOH (Back of the House) Restaurant Employees

back of the house BOH

While the front of house is the face of a restaurant, back of house (BOH) employees contribute to the restaurant’s heart and soul. Oftentimes, though, these employees are overlooked unless an issue arises. In a recruiting market that is hard pressed to find reliable and experienced BOH staff, we are taking a deeper dive into how restaurants can invest more in BOH employees and break down some of the common barriers that restrict communication or cause employees to seek other opportunities.

1. Create a culture of inclusion, not just diversity, in your BOH team.

Many BOH teams are diverse from an ethnic or racial makeup, but there is a significant lack of inclusion from a linguistic, cultural, or gendered perspective. Think about the makeup of your restaurant’s team…

  • What is the preferred language of the majority of your line level employees in BOH?
  • Do you have a manager that speaks that language (if other than English) on your BOH team, or the management team in general for that matter?
  • What is the gender makeup of your BOH team?

These simple questions can help you recognize if there are unintentional barriers that prevent your employees from feeling like an integral part of your team. Being aware of the discrepancies between management and line level staff is the first step to making a change.

Management should be advocates for line level staff, and in part that means understanding the struggles your team faces. For example, reprimanding an employee for not calling off in an appropriate manner for a shift, might lead to frustration if they couldn’t understand the written policy because it was only available in English. Similarly, if your daily banter includes gendered “locker room talk,” female line cooks might feel they are not in an environment where women are respected. Once you identify areas for improvement, you can work to ensure a level playing field for all employees.

2. Promote work life balance initiatives for your BOH team.

On prep teams especially, we often see employees who work multiple jobs or consistently work overtime. Employees who are tired or overworked are more likely to injure themselves or experience other side effects of burnout. For employees with longer tenure, the cost of offering five days of vacation per year, for example, will potentially cost less than the payout of a worker’s compensation claim.

Survey your management teams to see what perks or benefits employees might appreciate, and then follow through. When employees see that you are willing to invest in them as people, not just as worker bees, then you might notice a happier environment buzzing in the back.

3. Offer leadership development programs.

The intention of such a program would be two-fold. First, the technical skill-set that leads to a chef being recognized and promoted to their leadership position does not always include managerial soft skills (cue Hell’s Kitchen clip with Gordon Ramsay berating a new chef). Soft skills are the je ne sais quoi that allow a manager to connect with and coach employees, deal with sticky personnel situations that may arise, and ultimately protect the restaurant from liability. However, these skills can also be learned with some assistance and continued coaching. Partner with your StratEx HR Consultant to create a training program that is engaging and relatable for your BOH leaders.

Additionally, this program could be expanded to help loyal, long-term employees grow beyond a prep or line cook role into a leadership role. Chances are that there is at least one prep cook in your BOH for multiple years who never calls off, works multiple jobs, and whom all the staff respect. Why not invest further in that individual? Let them know that there is an opportunity that would allow them to focus their energies at one restaurant, and turn that respect into teamwork. This is also a great potential solution to the challenges of representation that were previously addressed.

4. Acknowledge the importance of mental health.

This is often the silent disability that we do not recognize in any workplace until employees reach a breaking point. Chances are that there is at least one prep cook in your BOH who has been there for multiple years, never calls off, works multiple jobs, and all the staff respect. Hands down, looking at the past year, mental health represents the largest number of ADA situations I have encountered with my clients. In restaurants especially, the long, late hours and fast paced environment can lead to a high stress atmosphere. This stress can lead to or exacerbate any number of problems: alcoholism, drug addiction, depression, and anxiety, to name a few. The biggest struggle I see facing management is how to discuss these issues in an open, productive way without crossing the line and getting too involved in employees’ personal lives. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, chefs share how they have been able to cope with these struggles personally, as well as provide resources for their employees to tackle these illnesses in a healthy manner rather than turning to substance abuse or ignoring their feelings.

Employee Assistance Programs are also an amazing way to contribute to your employees’ lives without asking anything additional of them. EAPs provide free anonymous counseling services, along with helpful resources for a variety of other health and work/life balance items. This benefit typically costs a few dollars per employee for the entire year!! If you do not have this type of program set up, I highly recommend looking into it. Oftentimes, you can negotiate this to being included with carriers that you already use for other benefits as well.

5. Eliminating harassment.

I think we’ve all read enough horror stories over the past year in relation to how the #MeToo movement has affected the restaurant world. Mario Batali, Ken Friedman, John Besh, the list goes on and on. So while sexual harassment based on a male taking advantage of female is definitely a pervasive issue in the restaurant world, I also want to draw attention to types of harassment that do not get enough attention in the BOH, such as harassment based on sexual orientation or pregnancy. The culture of machismo can also be extended to isolate employees who do not fit traditional gender identities, or to intimidate those dealing with temporary physical restrictions from staying around.

The two must-haves when it comes to creating a proactive defense are to have a written handbook policy and conduct an annual mandatory supervisor training on the topics. However, the expulsion of harassment and discrimination goes beyond a proactive defense. Employees can recognize the difference between a company trying to cover their risk versus actually caring about a complaint that they have. In order to give an employee who is reporting a complaint, full freedom of expression, consider utilizing your HRC as a third-party investigator or adding HR Rescue to your services. While we will not give employees false pretenses about their complaints remaining completely confidential, they might feel more comfortable speaking initially about an emotionally charged situation with someone that they do not have to see on a daily basis. You also then have a neutral third party to back up any action that you ultimately see fit to course correct.

While these items are directed at the BOH, you will see the positive trickle effect of these actions on the rest of your restaurant. Maybe even use your BOH as a test kitchen for some of these initiatives to see if they are worth adding to the restaurant menu. Either way, you do not want to be the restaurant group that misses out on jumping forward with the times!

If you are interested in exploring any of these points further, please reach out to your StratEx HR Consultant to launch a spring initiative. Or if you are not yet familiar with our HR offerings, let your sales representative know if you are interested in a risk evaluation or HR project work.