Restaurants tackle workplace woes with HR push

Area restaurant groups along with the Delaware Restaurant Association are adopting a proactive approach to issues facing the industry. 

By PAM GEORGE
Special to Delaware Business Times

With four restaurants and counting, Carl and Lisa Georigi of Wilmington-based Platinum Dining Group have a lot of personnel on the payroll. But managing human resources in multiple fast-paced environments takes more than bookkeeping skills. It also involves recruitment, performance-management measures and employee relations.

In 2016, the Georigis hired Maryann Bradley to take the reins. “My job was to put more formalized processes and policies in place,” said Bradley, who worked in human resources for 35 years with DuPont Co. “But we’re also maintaining that family atmosphere during the growth stage.”

Similarly, Rehoboth Beach-based SoDel Concepts in 2016 hired Lisa Wheeler to run HR for the company, which has 10 restaurants and a catering company. Initially, her duties included overseeing payroll, health insurance and 401(k)s. Now her role is “ever-changing with the times,” she said.

Judging by media headlines, the times include sexual harassment allegations and substance abuse. And thanks to accusations against high-profile celebrity chefs, restaurants — are taking it on the chin.

The issues, along with labor shortages, have prompted the Delaware Restaurant Association
and area restaurant groups to adopt a proactive approach.

“I take the reputation of our industry so seriously because I’m very proud of what it does for the economy and the opportunities that it provides,” said Carrie Leishman, president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association (DRA). “This is a very good ‘check engine light’ for the industry and for individual companies.”

Carrie Leishman
Carrie Leishman

A call for professionalism

Restaurants are vibrant places with a high level of interaction between employees — both during and after hours — and guests. “That’s what people love about it,” said Josh Grapski, managing partner of La Vida Hospitality Group, which has four restaurants, catering divisions and more on the way. “But there’s the easy potential to cross the line.”

Sexual harassment, however, is evident in most workplaces, said Bradley of Platinum Dining, who was heavily involved with respect-in-the-workplace initiatives at DuPont.

But given the volume of people coming through a restaurant, the number of incidents can be higher. Events during after-hours fraternizing can spill over into the workplace, Grapski notes.

The industry has also been frequently linked to drug-and-alcohol abuse, partly due to titillating tell-all books by chefs such as Anthony Bourdain and reality TV shows such as “Vanderpump Rules,” which showcases attractive workers exhibiting bad behavior.

It’s not all sensationalism. Using data from 2008 to 2012, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that the highest rates of past-month illicit drug use were found in the accommodations and food services industry (19.1 percent), and workers in those industries had the highest rates of past-year substance-use disorder (16.9 percent).

A federal study on drugs in the workplace found that more than 70 percent of individuals using illegal drugs are employed. Because the hospitality industry employs so many people — one in 10 in Delaware — the odds of any workplace issue occurring in a restaurant are higher.

“When you have an epidemic attacking … the workforce in every state of this country, it will rain down into our industry,” Leishman said.

Maryann Bradley
Maryann Bradley

Reaching the next level

Corporate chains and large-scale hospitality groups typically have HR systems in place to address such matters. Milton-based Dogfish Head, for instance, has a dedicated team of 10. Granted, the company has an inn and brewery and distilling operations as well as two restaurants.

Most small and independent owners, however, handle HR themselves or leave it to managers. Only about four percent of the businesses in the industry have a HR professional, said Leishman, whose team has surveyed the DRA’s membership.

The DRA, which has been using the hashtag “NextLevel2018” on social media, presented the case for formalized practices at its educational forum in February. There were sessions on sexual harassment, labor litigation and drugs in the workplace.

To help members, the DRA is also developing online programs on such subjects as drug awareness and prevention and sexual harassment. A module will focus on how employers can provide help to people with substance-abuse problems.

Founded by the late Matt Haley, who was outspoken about his ability to overcome drug addiction, SoDel Concepts links employees in need with available resources, said Wheeler, the HR director. Recently she’s seen a few employees take the initiative and reach out for help.

Dogfish Head has an employee-assistance program designed to identify and assist employees in resolving personal problems.

Building a culture

With a lawyer as a partner, La Vida Hospitality Group is in a good position to handle legal issues. But Grapski said there is still a need for training pros and HR people. “You have to foster your culture,” he said. Leishman would approve. The DRA is promoting another hashtag, #WhoDoYouWantToBe.

Creating an identity will guide recruitment, training and policies, all of which are important given that restaurant employment has been declining. An improved economy offers employees options, and in some areas, such as the beach, the competition for workers is keen.

To nurture and retain talent, SoDel Concepts last fall held a retreat for employees with sessions on philanthropy and how to succeed in the industry. The company also holds boot camps on a variety of topics. “Some are food-driven. Some are about hiring, orientation and interviewing,” Wheeler said. “Anyone in the company can attend.”

Half of Dogfish Head’s HR division focuses on such topics as performance management,coworker growth and development, onboarding, wellness and engagement.

It’s all about showing employees that you care about their well-being and their future, Leishman said. Bradley of Platinum Dining would agree. Whenever she enters a Platinum Dining restaurant, she makes a point to ask employees how they like their work. One woman told her: “Everyone is very respectful in their interactions. People are friendly, and management cares about their employees.”

It was very nice to hear, Bradley said.

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