Human Resources | October 2012 | By Amy Sung

The Trust Factor

Trustworthy employees let operators breath easy when they’re not in the store. Here’s how to make sure you’re hiring those people.

Jason's Deli builds its company culture by hiring trustworthy employees.
Jason's Deli builds its company culture by hiring trustworthy employees. Jason's Deli
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Now that social media has become a ubiquitous part of society, a simple click of a button from an unhappy customer can tarnish the reputation of any business.

The same is just as true for a displeased or untrustworthy employee. As such, ensuring employee satisfaction, security, and training has never been more important.

“Ultimately, the employees are the business and the brand,” says Thom Crosby, president of Pal’s Sudden Service, a Kingsport, Tennessee–based chain serving the northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia regions. “So to win and then sustain that win in the marketplace, you need the most capable employees. The front-line employees are where the brand promise is delivered and sales revenues made, so you must have employees you believe in and trust.”

To build a team of employees who respect the company and always prove loyal, the company must show respect for its staff by first creating an appealing company culture, one consultant says.

“Birds of a feather flock together,” says Aaron Allen, a third-generation restaurateur and Orlando, Florida–based global restaurant consultant. “Every successful restaurant CEO will tell you that they build their business with a focus and attention to their employees and treating them even better than they treat their customers.”

These CEOs might also explain the importance of company culture, Allen says.

“It’s not a buzzword; it’s not something you find in your yogurt. Culture is at the core of successful companies and workforce improvement conversations,” he explains. “Surprisingly, though, while many would agree with this sentiment immediately, fewer can as easily define what programs they have in place that are truly special as it relates to culture. There must be a budget for it and it must have the top-level attention it deserves. Culture starts at the top.”

At Jason’s Deli, the company lives and breathes a set of core values that are built on a foundation of integrity, says Blake Parker, chief innovation officer for the Beaumont, Texas–based fast-casual brand.

“We continually work on a philosophy of servant leadership in our business interactions,” Parker says. “We are honest with our employees and we ask the same from them, because we believe all employees should display a level of honesty, which, in turn, builds trust. This trust strengthens our culture, as well as our spirit of hospitality, and can increase our profits and morale—which ultimately impacts our customers.”

The most important thing a brand’s executive team should remember, Allen says, is they cannot have happy customers if they don’t have happy employees.

“You cannot have a great recruiting program without having a great public relations program, and you cannot retain the best employees if you are not constantly and consistently investing in improving the culture … with tangible programs that are meaningful and offer competitive differentiation and advantage,” he says.

To find trusted employees, operators can turn to tools like background checks, says Gary Karp, executive vice president of the Chicago-based foodservice consulting and research firm Technomic Inc.

“Other opportunities include looking at report cards of students, [or] using referrals from trustworthy current employees,” Karp says. “Standard tests are available as an option. Another sometimes-overlooked method is understanding an individual’s motivation for working. Try to determine if the individual really wants and needs a job, wants to enter the workforce and learn skills, or just wants some short-term cash.”

New tools such as LinkedIn and social media recruiting systems—through networks like Twitter, Facebook, and a brand’s website, for example—are also powerful, Allen says.

“The best recruiting programs have a budget for or voice with the company’s public relations firm,” he says. “If you focus on the employee like the most valuable customers you have, you will no doubt improve the conditions for that employee, and in doing so, build a reputation that reverses the recruiting equation. Rather than you finding good employees, they find you.”

Jason’s Deli relies heavily on internal referrals when hiring its employees, Parker says. “We believe that trustworthy people associate with other trustworthy people,” he explains. “We make sure everyone is aware of our core values and what our expectations are when it comes to building and maintaining our culture of integrity.”

Communicating expectations is one of three key components to building and maintaining trustworthy employees, Technomic’s Karp says. The other two are training and consistent reinforcement.

He says each hire should be required to sign a well-thought-out but simply worded employee agreement that “states that the company agrees to employ and pay the employee the agreed-upon rate. In exchange, the employees are expected to perform duties; have a pleasant attitude toward customers and coworkers; represent the brand well through cleanliness, courtesy, respect; and act honestly.”  

It’s the company’s job to be sure task-specific training is done formally, so performance responsibility can then be owned by the employee, Karp says. “Secondarily, training should also include an understanding of what the brand stands for and any brand standards,” he adds. “On consistent reinforcement, it is important to let the employees know how they are doing. Care should be taken to ensure the reinforcement is not just critique, but a balance of positive reinforcement and retraining if needed.”

Because every employee is an ambassador for her brand, “anything that is done that degrades the brand or the work environment is a form of untrustworthiness,” Karp says. “In addition, each employee is a working asset or investment of the brand. If behavior and performance do not reflect the standards normally associated with the brand, then brand equity is negatively affected.”

Unfortunately, many brands have seen firsthand the ways in which poor employee behavior and decisions can harm their reputation. Take Domino’s, for example. The brand suffered in 2009 when a video was released online showing employees doing inappropriate things while preparing pizzas. More recently, a Wendy’s employee in Texas was arrested and sentenced to 22 years in prison for distributing childhood pornography through the drive-thru window. And in July, a Burger King employee was documented in a photo standing in bins of lettuce meant for customers.

“These extreme examples prove just how much employees can affect a brand’s reputation,” Karp says.

In short, operators can lose their business overnight because of untrustworthy employees, Allen says.

“There are the costs of mischievous behavior and theft, of course, but in the digital era, it is the reputation of the company that can be destroyed in the blink of an eye,” he says. “You can spend decades building a quality reputation, but if an employee uploads a video, makes a tweet, defrauds customers—any number of potential risks—it’s the damage to the company reputation that can bring a brand to its knees.

“Media, customers, the community, the industry—stakeholders from all of those constituencies assume that if you hired the person that could do this thing, then it’s not just an issue of a rogue employee, but an indicator of company culture, values, and hiring methodologies,” Allen says.

To handle untrustworthy employees, operators should clearly define and classify violations, Karp suggests, adding that operators might consider a two-tiered punishment approach.

“Class one violations—for example, stealing, violence, profane language to clients, standing on lettuce in a video, etc.—would have a zero-tolerance [policy] and be recommended to result in immediate termination,” Karp explains. “Class two violations—like inaccuracy, lateness, low effort—would be recommended for additional training and should be used in conjunction with a formal performance improvement plan.”

Because Pal’s believes that any form of subpar performance, behaviors, and attitudes negatively impact the bottom line, the chain makes an effort to hire well, train thoroughly, and trust its employees fully. At the same time, managers and leaders are directed to monitor and verify employees on an ongoing basis, Crosby says. 

“We terminate anyone found to be untrustworthy,” he says. “We see it as a character trait that we have no expertise in correcting.”

Not all brands have such a strict code of business. Jason’s Deli maintains a progressive disciplinary action policy, which is only used if the situation warrants such action, Parker says. “When possible, we prefer to retrain, redirect, or rehabilitate an employee,” he says.

Many organizations have learned that the issue must be dealt with immediately, Allen says.

“If an employee suspects they are on the way out, they can do more damage and may have even more of a motivation to do so.” Still, brands should try to trust their people, while also building their systems, he says. “Systems are expensive to build, both in terms of financial and nonfinancial investment, but they pay for themselves multiples over in the long run. No operator is omnipotent; the culture and systems are critical.”

As a restaurateur and company owner, Allen says there is a saying that’s stuck with him throughout his career that helps inform his own hiring practices: Never hire anyone that you would not willingly send to represent you in your absence.

“It’s better to run short-staffed with a loyal, faithful, committed, and capable team than to add people you have reservations about,” he says.

“The employees are your representatives to the customers and community, as we all know, but they are also an extension of your culture and values. Every hire you make says something about you as a manager and your company.”