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Expert Advice on Improving Human Resources

Maggie Borden

March 26, 2018

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Lien Ta, co-owner of Here's Looking at You and a participant in the recent JBF Women's Leadership Programs webinar
Lien Ta, co-owner of Here’s Looking At You, and a recent presenter for the Women's Leadership Program webinar on human resources. (Photo: Joyce Kim)

The latest installment in our ongoing Women’s Leadership Programs webinar series featured a discussion on the challenges and potential for better human resources in the restaurant industry with Pamela Hinckley, CEO of Tom Douglas Restaurants; Devony Boyle, HR director of people at Tom Douglas Restaurants; and Lien Ta, co-owner of Here’s Looking At You in Los Angeles. Below, Hinckley, Boyle, and Ta share some of their top advice for improving HR, whether you’re dealing with a company with hundreds of employees, or only a handful.

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Write a Mission Statement and Handbook
Devony Boyle: If you don’t have a mission statement and you don’t have a handbook, by all means, now is the time to get one. We live and die by our handbook. Every single day, there is an issue that comes up that we have to use the handbook for, because it covers the agreed-upon principles that everybody will come back to. As much as people might pooh-pooh a handbook in the moment, when it comes time for an employment decision to be made, everybody comes back to it. It manages the expectations for the employees, and sets the tone for the value of the company. So, they really are critical even if they’re rudimentary.

Hire the Right Staff
DB: We work with all the non-profits in Seattle, and go to job fairs everywhere. But we’ve also put in the time to help our managers interview better by teaching them to use behavior-based questions, rather than just open-ended questions that don’t really give you much information. You have to keep trying different things, and being willing to adapt and be nimble with trying to get people in the door. The biggest part about retaining staff is treating your people well.

Then Get to Know Them
Lien Ta: I have a small restaurant that’s been open about a year and a half. We have 25 to 30 employees at a time, and I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been able to foster our culture from day one. It’s important that I appear accessible and available. I think my team responds to the way that I treat them, by asking a lot of questions—I ask about their lives, what they really think, and I ask them for their feedback, as far as how we learn and teach each other at the restaurant.

It’s a very personal team. I’m on the floor pretty much every night. We all got to know each other pretty well. We do four-month employee reviews, and rather than it just being a checklist of whether I think this person is strong at wine knowledge, etc., I really take the time to evaluate the four months of growth that I see in this employee, and outline the suggestions that I have for the following four months.

Offer the Right Benefits
DB: We have a general employee assistance program, which is something that you can purchase alongside of your medical, dental, or life insurance programs, just ask your broker about it. It offers employees resources for mental health, financial, and legal issues. Ours always comes free with our life insurance plan, so that’s worth looking into.

Provide a Safe Space to Talk
DB: We have a lot of reporting. People come to the HR department with harassment complaints for a number of reasons. It could be that they don’t want to have the complaint known in their location, because they’re embarrassed, or shy, or feel like it won’t be handled, or even that the person they need to complain about is their boss. It’s also a safe place to talk about workplace hazards and unsafe behavior. If somebody feels like something’s not going well, we want to hear all the stories, so that we can fix things, and fix them right away. We can’t fix things that we don’t know about. What I like to say is that our organization has good values, good people, and good practices, but there are a thousand people that work here at any given point. We can’t expect these human beings to be exactly perfect cookie-cutters of each other.

Pamela Hinckley: I think one of the reasons that it’s so safe is we have the luxury of the HR department not being in our main office, so people feel a little more protection. I know everyone can’t have that, but I would recommend for sensitive situations, try to have conversations outside of the workplace and/or where other ears can’t hear it, because it helps people open up more.

DB: It’s actually only in the last couple years that we’ve had this private location. In the past, I have had meetings in all sorts of coffee shops, in my car, anywhere that could be private. So you can find a place. You just need to be thoughtful about what you choose.

Document, Document, Document
DB: It is so important that you write down what happens when you have a situation with somebody, whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. A good way to do it, if you don’t have formal documentation processes in place, is to just email yourself, or email another person that is at equal level to you. Don’t email it to all your managers, but send it to the person that has a need to know, or just yourself, because then you have that information. Document, document, document—you want objective information, the dates, the times, who was there with you, what was agreed on, what was said, all of those pieces. That is going to be your saving grace, if you ever get called to the table about any of the situations that go on in your restaurant company.

Have a Resource Book
DB: I have a resource book, and I think that is a great thing to do. I walk around all the city fairs, and I grab all the flyers and pamphlets from all the city agencies and put them in my book. I also belong to the SHRM, which is the Society of Human Resource Managers. Anybody can participate in it, and there is a ton of information in there.

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Get more advice and resources by watching the full webinar.

Learn more about JBF Women's Leadership Programs.