With almost seven years in the fast-food industry (four of them as a manager) under my belt, I have seen hundreds of coworkers come and go. This is no surprise considering that employees in restaurants and retail do not tend to stick around for long, with about 17 percent of employees leaving their jobs each year, according to LinkedIn.

High levels of turnover are standard in the service industry, but turnover increased during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw employees leave their jobs at such high rates that it was branded “the great resignation.” Momentum in turnover is leaving many stores short-staffed and under-skilled.

Some employees leave for unavoidable reasons, like moving away for college, but more often than not, in today’s hectic climate, employees are leaving because they are mistreated (by customers, coworkers, or management), stressed out, or the job is not fulfilling their needs. 

As a Wendy’s manager (since high school) and intern at Zenput, I’m operating in dual realities where I can attest to how challenging each shift can be, while also seeing the modern and innovative solutions that restaurant brands are using to address these exact challenges. These seven retention tips not only help me keep team members around longer, but ultimately make employees happier and more productive. 

1. Be Patient with Employees

Managers in the service industry often have many employees and responsibilities to juggle all at once, which means that being fair and consistent can be challenging. Despite this, managers must be vigilant in their efforts to treat each team member fairly and take the time to be empathetic towards each individual situation. New employees, especially those who have never held a job before (like many who start off in foodservice), are thrown into a chaotic environment with no idea who the other people are, how things work, or what to do. Things familiar or second nature to managers are foreign concepts to new employees.

Some of the best and most dedicated employees are those who take longer to learn in the first place, and managers who offer them the time and guidance they need to learn will find that it pays off in the long run. 

2. Be Fair

Managers must aim to be consistent with how they treat their employees. When employees feel they are being treated unfairly, they have a higher chance of being dissatisfied and ultimately leaving their positions. When managers are inconsistent with their treatment of employees, issues can quickly arise that cause tension that can spread throughout the team. Being fair includes being consistent and cohesive with the rest of management regarding team member expectations. One tactic for managers is to compliment and coach employees from a brand standards perspective, rather than the manager’s personal preference. This is especially useful if they find that they contradict their previous comments or those of other managers. 

3. Value Effort Over Talent 

Employees willing to put in the effort to improve continuously will end up being more valuable in the long run than employees who are naturally talented but unmotivated. Help managers find ways to identify team member efforts and help employees improve. Remember, some roles may not be suitable for every team member, so help each one find their strengths to be successful – don’t try to shove a square peg in a round hole. 

In my years of experience at Wendy’s, we had a team member who started very unsuccessfully. Truthfully, it seemed as if they could not get anything right. Nonetheless, they tried every minute of every shift to improve, and instead of getting frustrated and quitting, now they are the store’s most reliable and talented grill operator. 

4. Optimize Operations 

Many store tasks need to be completed daily that take employees away from customer-facing positions. From prep, to putting away stock, to cleaning, there always seems to be an endless list of tasks to complete. Helping employees be more efficient by automating tasks and streamlining processes to avoid the same work being done multiple times through operations execution software can mean employees have more time to help their team members and serve customers. When more time and energy is allocated to service positions, employees will feel more supported, and customer service will likely improve.

5. Offer Flexibility

For many team members, the reason that they stay in the service industry is because of the flexibility that the schedule often offers. According to SHRM, 80 percent of workers (up from 75 percent in 2018) said they would be more loyal to their employer if they had flexible work options. When their position stops allowing them to have the flexible schedule they need, they will have no problem getting another job somewhere that will honor their availability. Although it might mean one or two short-staffed shifts along the way, it is better than losing an employee altogether, and the employee will appreciate the accommodation. 

6. Train Team Members Right the First Time

When employees are trained thoroughly starting a job or learning something new, it can help them feel more empowered and confident. Rather than feeling totally overwhelmed by the task at hand and discouraged by constant corrections, they can feel assured that they know what they are supposed to do. Keep in mind that employees may have different learning styles, meaning that for some it may be easier to watch, practice, or even read what they are supposed to do. Try to be accommodating to different learning styles when available, as this can help employees gain knowledge more quickly, helping them to feel more comfortable. When scheduling a new employee, be cognizant of who will be on each shift training them and if that person is capable of helping lead the new hire to success. Meanwhile, check in on training progress and gauge employee confidence so that knowledge gaps can be addressed. 

7. Motivate Employees

Ultimately, employees come to work to get paid, so be sure to keep employees around by fulfilling standard reviews and raises so that team members feel recognized and valued. During the review process, evaluate the employee’s goals with the company and assess if a promotion would be a good opportunity. Keep in mind that not all promotions need to go to management-level instantly; many companies have roles like “team trainer” that can help the employee feel valued without taking them immediately to the management level. 

Not all motivation has to be monetary, employees are often just as motivated by being presented with a (fair) challenge. One of the most beneficial tactics that I use as a manager in fast-food has been finding ways to motivate employees by challenging them to do better on an objective task such as a speed of service competition (our drive-thrus are timed, and we can see our ranking compared to other stores) or a cleaning challenge. Even if we lose the challenge (which isn’t very often!), pointing out that our efforts made a difference boosts morale. Finding unique ways to motivate employees can boost spirits, teamwork, and effort, all while offering better service to guests. Uniting the team through friendly competition leads to a more exciting shift where the time goes by faster, leading to a sense of accomplishment and higher satisfaction. 

Short staffed or not, the show must go on

While there are many reasons why employees choose to leave their workplace, there are often factors that are in management’s control that can change the outcome. Try implementing these tips in your stores to mitigate turnover and let employees know they’re valued; which is a good way to not only keep the talent you have, but also foster a work environment that attracts new hires as well.

Stephanie Massart is currently a manager at Wendy’s in Washington State and intern at Zenput, the leading operations execution platform for multi-unit restaurants, convenience stores, and grocers. Zenput is used in over 60,000 locations in more than 100 countries by top brands, including Domino’s, Chipotle, P.F. Chang’s, Five Guys, KFC, Smart & Final, and Global.

Employee Management, Outside Insights, Restaurant Operations, Story