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With Great Employees Comes Great Responsibility

A few years ago, the sous chef at Farmbloomington in Indiana posted a Craigslist ad for a line cook. It …

By Dave Eagle

Photo by Colby Stopa (Flickr)
Photo by Colby Stopa (Flickr)

A few years ago, the sous chef at Farmbloomington in Indiana posted a Craigslist ad for a line cook. It soon went viral on the basis of its 44-point breakdown of what is expected for the position. With desired qualifications including things like “You do it right, without cutting corners, even if it’s a pain in the ass and tedious,” the ad says as much about the employer as it does about what they’re looking for. Some who are not in the food industry called it “ridiculously demanding,” while those familiar with restaurant kitchens felt it sounded just about right. Whatever your thoughts on the criteria, one thing is certain: these are not pleasant people looking for help. They’ve clearly been burned by a bad line cook before (maybe for real), are fed up with the general quality of applicants and hires, and they don’t want to take any of your crap, either. For a legit line cook who knows what the deal is, she knows what the demands of kitchen work are. When she looks at ads, it’s with an eye for outward signs that a potential job has other things going on for it, something on top of the hard work that will make employment rewarding. She would find nothing of the sort in reading Farmbloomington’s ad. They’re tired of subpar employees ending up in their kitchen while the industries best go on to work at other places. The reason behind this reminds me of a Sarah Silverman joke. It goes something like, Any time people live together, there’s always one bad roommate. If you’re thinking that’s never happened to you, then you are the bad roommate.

Click the image to read the whole ad.
Click the image to read the whole ad.

Farmbloomington is the bad roommate here. They clearly want the best, but offer nothing beyond a list of demands and the promise of a paycheck. It’s the kind of place that can’t help but attract the mediocre. If they ever do get a great line cook, it’s because he needs the money. He’ll probably be out the door with the first tempting offer that comes his way. Great employees are out there, even in the hourly rate world of hospitality and retail. Attracting them to work for you is going to require more than a job description and list of skills and requirements. You need to demonstrate that you’re the kind of place great people would want to work. How can you do that? First, and most tautologically, be the type of place great people want to work for. What does that mean? I don’t know, at least not in your case. Every business is different. But it helps to look at the culture you’ve fostered, and see how that measures up against the qualities of your dream employee. If you’re looking for a creative problem solver type, and you hand her a 100-page employee handbook of rules, procedures, and policies when she starts working, you’ve got a mismatch on your hands. Creative problem solvers can’t do their thing under the crushing weight of rigid bureaucracy. You’ll need to rethink either the type of employee you want or the type of business you want to run.

One of the best examples of a company getting exactly the kind of employee they want is Netflix. Do a google search of “Netflix culture slide deck” for the full story, but the upshot is this: the culture of Netflix is one that demands “excellence” in their employees. The way they identify such a nebulous and unknowable-at-first quality is through a probationary period, wherein employees must excel at their jobs. That means if they do every job function right, even execute perfectly, they’re let go—with a very generous severance package. It’s the people who go above and beyond, who excel in some way and standout, that are kept on. What’s in it for the excellent people? Autonomy. They work the hours that work for them. They take sick time and vacation without limit or restriction. They’re paid well and receive great benefits (Netflix and chill, anyone?). In other words, they’ve proven themselves to be excellent and are treated as such. If it only takes someone 20 hours a week to be excellent, so be it. Obviously, in hospitality and retail, you can’t have people showing up when they please. And for a line cook, excellence might mean the capability to hit all 44 of those bullet points in the Craigslist ad. Be upfront, but don’t make it your first impression. But you can also figure out a way to reward valuable employees, and to demonstrate that you value them.

attract great employees with food.
Google famously feeds all their employees for free on a variety of world cuisine at their cafeteria. You can get away with a “Thank You” lunch now and then.
Photo by Michael Dumont (Flickr)

Once you’ve transformed the culture of your shop to one that people want to work at, you’ll be surprised at how many people come out of the woodwork, looking for jobs. When people want to work for you, you can start the filtering process pretty early. There are a couple of ways to improve the quality of candidates you see from the start:

  • Don’t advertise or hang “help wanted” signs in the window. Anybody reading the want-ads or responds to a sign they walk by is searching for work too indiscriminately. They’ve got no knowledge of you or your brand; they just need to pick up several hours a week at a fair wage. These are not the people you want. For sure, there are plenty of diligent, hard-working people out there looking to catch a break, but this pool of candidates is likely to provide you with way more people who aren’t worth the time to investigate. Narrow your focus.\
  • Get referrals from existing employees. If you’ve done your job and created an excellent work environment, your current employees are the last people who’ll want to mess that up. They know what the score is, they know what you expect, and they know what the rewards are. They’re not going to recommend someone who they think would jeopardise a good thing.
  • Ask your most loyal customers if they’re looking for work. If you’ve got some super dedicated customers with whom you’ve built a rapport, it couldn’t hurt to ask them if they’re looking. They’ve already got a passion for what you do—they’re there all the time, right? Part-time hours and an employee discount might be all the push they need.
  • If you must advertise, keep it to social media. Assuming you have an established presence, of course. Again, you’ll be targeting people who are already familiar with your store and like it. Maybe they’ve been following for awhile and have been treated to a steady stream of photos of your employees enjoying themselves at work. Maybe some of your followers have been waiting for the day you’d start hiring.
You're gonna need to do a little better than this.Photo by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner
You’re gonna need to do a little better than this.
Photo by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner (Flickr)

Once you’ve gotten to the point where you think you’ve found a great employee, then you’ve got work to keep them. This part isn’t that hard, though. The thing about great employees is they’re dependable, and keeping them is as simple as remaining true to the culture that attracted them to your business to begin with. Be respectful, kind, and straightforward about expectations. When you praise them, be specific. Don’t just say “Thanks,” for a job well done, let them know what you’re thanking them for. Tell them, unsolicitedly, what they’re value is to you and the business.

Also, give them raises. Money is very effective.