What Waiting Tables Can Teach Us about Employee Turnover

May 21 is National Waitstaff Day, a great day to raise the profile of a very unique workforce segment that reports an astonishing 73% employee turnover rate and high amounts of workplace stress. Coupled with notoriously low wages that depend heavily on tips and a glut of part-time seasonal employment tides, it can be a bit of a challenge to keep it all running smoothly.

But the food service and restaurant industry always manages to soldier on, and it might be because the nature of the work is just very amenable to employee turnover. Waiting tables was the original “side gig” before millennials made the “gig economy” a thing. In fact, the restaurant industry is hands down the nation’s largest employer of teenagers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one out of every three employed teenagers work at a restaurant, who more often than not take advantage of the odd working hours and tips to earn extra cash while attending school or pursuing other goals.

Nature and Nurture

Many success stories begin with a job waiting tables, and you or someone you know has probably worked at a restaurant in their youth. That turnover rate seems insurmountable, and maybe it is for a reason. There is just not much that can be done about the workers this type of work attracts. Food service is simply a transient profession. Unless employees are actively seeking a long-term career waiting tables, they are more likely to leave.

But who says a side gig or temporary job can’t be the best one ever? Moreover why shouldn’t it be? Too often with recognition and engagement we focus on the end result and shade the other side of that equation: attracting employees that are a good fit in the first place. No matter how long an employee works for you, the ones who actually want to work for you make a bigger impact with the time they have. Those small hits add up over time. Sustaining them is the key.

Seize the Opportunity

That’s a good thing to remember when human capital challenges become daunting. We all want to build a culture where people want to stay and do their best work but sometimes that can feel like shooting a BB at an asteroid. It reminds us that the work of employee engagement is never “done”; it exists in each opportunity you have to make a genuine human connection with employees and build a truly supportive workplace where their efforts aren’t taken for granted.

Here’s a neat trick National Waitstaff Day can remind us of – assume no employee is going to stick around for long. Instead, devote your energies toward building real relationships, recognizing contributions, and making a solid effort to be good humans moment to moment. You may not get to keep all the employees you want, but you can make sure the ones you get have what they need to thrive. Get that part right, and the end result falls into place.


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