Wendy’s highlighted the top .001 percent of its general managers. Every single one takes time to acknowledge their team members.

It’s never been more difficult for restaurant operators to preserve a roster of all-star employees.

Minimum wage is increasing across the board—at both state and local levels. The national unemployment rate is at historical lows. The inevitable result: turnover, with a per-employee price tag in the thousands, averages well over 100 percent in quick service and fast-casual environments.



Great-paying restaurant jobs are now low-hanging fruit. Culture is more important than ever. Yet how can management build—let alone nurture a healthy, spirited environment when an entire staff shuffles in and out on an annual basis?

According to the crème de la crème—the top thousandth of a percent—of general managers at Wendy’s, there is an easy place to start.

Wendy’s dove into metrics at all 6,700 of its global units and selected 10 GMs whose management and performance were best-in-class. A common thread weaved through their best practices: taking the time to recognize employees.

“Recognition” can easily feel like jargon—the stuff of think pieces. It seems obvious that employees enjoy being recognized for good work and most managers likely feel they already do a sufficient job of it. But do they?

According to management studies in Business.com and Forbes, 40 percent of employees report feeling underappreciated, and two out of three employees report that they would quit if they felt unrecognized.

For any operator that cares about retention, it’s worth auditing recognition tactics. Acknowledging team members sounds fantastic in theory, but in practice it can seem unwieldy and awkward. What’s the right forum? How can managers be genuine? When is best to shout out a rock star, and at what frequency should kudos be doled out? How do you balance recognition and critique without marginalizing underperformers?

Over the past 15 years I’ve had the opportunity to observe and consult with some of the industry’s top operators, first as co-founder of newBrand Analytics and now as co-founder of ShiftOne. Below are four actionable kernels of recognition wisdom derived from conversations with GMs and multi-unit leaders across enterprises like McDonald’s, Applebee’s, Burger King, and many more. 

Be deliberate.

Recognition may seem like a small task best accomplished spontaneously when great work is recognized in the field. The day-to-day chaos of a restaurant, however, has a surefire way of interfering with anything that isn’t on a calendar. A recognition strategy must be just that: an intentional, structured effort to celebrate employees. Don’t wait for exceptional performance to fall into your lap—seek it out proactively. Establish an “employee of the month” initiative or a system of ranking team members with discretionary “badges” for service or salesmanship. Take it a step further and set aside 20 or 30 minutes one day each week to plan sales competitions that give your team the opportunity to shine. Track them via spreadsheet, print-outs, or better yet an application thank links into the PoS and keeps the team updated on rankings real-time from their mobile device.

Remember the small things.

Employees are people first, workers second. Everyone loves to excel and contribute, but even the most superlative performers yearn for a more human camaraderie in the workplace. Always note the details that kindle spirits: birthdays and work anniversaries are a great place to start. Whether it’s with a simple “Happy Birthday” or a shout out in front of the entire staff, acknowledging important moments shows team members they are valued as more than servers, bartenders or cooks.

Consider context.

You’ve observed a spectacular guest interaction—great. Kudos are in order, but where, when, and how do you deliver it? Stopping the team member next time you see them back-of-house? Arranging a one-on-one meeting? Praising them in a pre-shift session with the floor team? Shouting them out in a full team meeting? Popping a hip gif in a team chat tool? The answer: all of the above. Managers should maintain a healthy balance of direct and public recognition, leveraging all the venues available to them. Recognition that’s always public risks seeming like empty fanfare, but if acknowledgements are doled out tete-a-tete or in small groups then team members miss out on peer appreciation. Mix it up and strive for a balance.

Recognize the good; encourage the not-so-good.

It’s the carrot and stick dilemma: good work should be rewarded, but what about employees who aren’t meeting expectations? Isn’t the logical alternative to reprimand? Wrong: taking a negative intonation when correcting behavior is a great method of breeding disenchantment in the ranks and driving employees to other opportunities. Strive to guide proactively rather than scold retroactively. Consider encouragement as the tails to recognition’s heads: both equally part of a crucial whole. If only all-star performers receive positive managerial attention, the organization will fall into a stasis where the good remain good and those who need improvement never progress.

Ashish Gambhir is a 15-year veteran of the employee engagement sphere. He is the president and co-founder of ShiftOne, formerly MomentSnap, a mobile-first employee empowerment platform designed for hourly workers. He previously co-founded social media listening company newBrand Analytics (acquired by Sprinklr), where he helped companies like McDonald’s and Subway optimize per-location performance on an enterprise scale.

Employee Management, Outside Insights, Story