Sunday, March 9, 2008

H/R Roulette

In my thirty-plus-year career in the food service business, I had got to the point where I was a damned decent manager. Up until about twenty months ago, I naively thought that would segue into success as a restaurateur. What I have since discovered is that, in nearly every aspect of running a restaurant, being a manager is a completely different story from being the owner. As the owner, I have to wear ALL the hats. Marketing. Accounting. Human Resources. Training. Purchasing. Maintenance. Menu development. Decorating. Community relations. Financial negotiations. Ad infinitum.

All that, in addition to filling an actual position—cook, counter person, barista, waitress—at least forty hours a week.

Some day, I’ll delegate as many of these responsibilities as humanly possible. Once I identify exactly what they are and which of my staff would be best suited to taking on which tasks…and how much I would then have to PAY them to do so. I should have time to do that by, oh… 2015 or so. Meanwhile, I fully understand that the current definition of myself as a business owner is, "Jack of all trades, master of none."

Back in the olden days, when all I had to do was manage a restaurant, I had the "human resources" thing down. I knew how to screen applications, how to conduct a decent interview, how to initiate new employees not only into their particular jobs, but also into the overall culture of our workplace. I could call with deadly accuracy whether someone was going to "fit in" with our crew, compliment our personalities, and subscribe to our general work ethic. Rarely did an incompatible candidate make it past the first interview.

God, how that ball-game has changed!

First of all, I simply do not have the time or energy to invest into all the screening, interviewing, role-playing and educated-guessing it takes to excel at the human resources game. Secondly, even if I did, the labor pool available to me negates everything I ever thought I knew. My criteria for hiring someone have been distilled to "Are they at least semi-literate?" "Are they likely to be around two months from now?" and "Do they have an actual address and phone number at which they can be reached?"

Despite all that, I have somehow managed to assemble a pretty decent crew (not without going through the tortures of the damned to get there…) Unconventional, in some ways, and certainly no one I might have hired at all in my past life. But if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that I cannot afford to be limited by what I thought was written in stone fifteen years ago.

I have, however, established that there is one aspect of crew dynamics that is the same today as it was back then. And it is just as frustrating as it ever was.

Employees are never—N-E-V-E-R—content with their schedules.

They WILL whine that they are not getting enough hours. They WILL make casual yet pointed mention of which bill collectors are beating down their doors. They WILL cough and sputter to work in their old vehicle that is on its last legs.

So you take the hint. You give them more hours, or you give them more responsibility and the attendant raise, just to keep the wolves from the door.

And in return, without fail…they WILL develop a chronic illness, put in for vacation time, take a class, sign up for extra-curriculars, break up with their boyfriend, get pregnant, have one of their fifty-three grandmothers die…et cetera, et cetera ad infinitum. Much as I love and appreciate them, there is not one lady on my current crew who is not guilty of engaging in these shenanigans at one time or another.

Yesterday afternoon, one of my high school girls demonstrated this theory to the absolute nth degree.

"S" was hired last September. She is friends with "R"—my other high school student employee. One of the conditions of "S’s" employment was that she and "R" would not join the same athletics or extra-curriculars, since I would need at least one of them available to work any given day. "S" assured me that this would not be a problem, and so she was brought on…perhaps against my better judgment.

Last week, "S" hit me with the story that "her parents are pressuring her" to be involved in softball, even though she is not on the team. They have arranged for her to "take stats" at the games. She will need to have all game days off. Since "R" is on the softball team, this is exactly and entirely contrary to the conditions of "S’s" employment. Dammit!

The thought crossed my mind to simply terminate "S," but I decided I would try to work with her. So, I hired a couple more high school students, hoping to get them trained by the commencement of softball season, when I would be losing, for all intents and purposes, both my current student employees.

I added those two new students to next week’s schedule. Which—in an effort to keep labor under control—meant a reciprocal reduction in hours for some old employees—most notably, "S." Saturday afternoon, after getting her first look at next week’s schedule, she approaches me with her lower lip quivering…

"How come my schedule is so different now than it was?"

"Aren’t you the one that told me you were going to need all this time off for softball games?"

"Yeah, but that’s not ‘til next month!"

"Well, what did you think I was going to do, wait until you were gone to hire and train someone?"

Lower lip sticking out so far she looked like a Ubangi, she walked away.

Less than five minutes later…oh yes—LESS THAN FIVE MINUTES later, she corrals me again.

"One of the days you have me scheduled next week is a day that I can’t work!"


"Friday. Friday is the first softball game."

"I thought you just told me that games didn’t start until next month."

"The first game is March 14th. I just found that out."

The first thing that comes out of my mouth is, "I can’t believe that you were just here complaining about not getting enough hours, and now you’re telling me you can’t work one of the days you ARE scheduled. What is UP with that???"

The smoke of shorting synapses is pouring out of my ears. I want to take this girl, grab her by the scruff of her neck and the waistband of her pants, and heave her out the door. "S" is about to burst into tears.

But I am not going to be suckered. I clamp my mouth shut, grit my teeth, and count to ten. Then I say, "All right…well. Did you request Friday off?"


"Okay. You know the rules. If you didn’t request the day off, you’re responsible for the hours. You either need to work, or find someone to cover the shift."

Sullenly…like I was her mother or something: "I’ll work…!"

Dear god. If I had wanted this kind of histrionics from a seventeen-year-old, I would have opted for in vitro in 1990.

Yes…there it was. The entire "I need hours/I can’t work" employee game played out in the span of five minutes on a Saturday afternoon. It couldn’t have been more perfect if I had staged it for a training video. No, they aren’t all seventeen…but they ALL play this game.

And I’m starting to wish that the idea of cloning myself (several times over) was not immoral, illegal…and not nearly fast enough.


  1. I have to think that putting up with teenage drama is worse in the work place than as a parent.  You're trying to run a business.  You have to depend on these kids.  As a parent, you live with the fact that the kid can't be depended on.  In my case, it's because she is SO anxious to work.

  2. Ah! What a well documented entry you have here!
    You have made the climb from from manager to owner and in doing so you have learned the lesson
    "The higher the monkey can climb, the more it shows it's tail"

    It's not easy being at at the top, and the hardest part is covering your own butt!

    I promise you...if you climb a little higher, anyone looking up will be squinting!

    Good luck!   Marc :)

  3. The way your luck is running your clones would turn out to be all the possible permutations of you, hopefully enough permutations to wear all the hats. Would blow your customers, minds though. Oh, didn't I tell you, i'm actually one of octuplets, or some combo. LOL


  4. I do not envy you.  When I read your accounts of owning, managing, and working at your own business, I think of my friend Sherri, who is doing the same thing with a pet sitting service, and of a friend in Scotland with a small giftshop...despite the different businesses and different locations, both of these women have virtually all the same complaints/problems you have. My hat is off to you (and to my two friends with their businesses).  You're stronger women than I am!


  5. Ya know..I feel your pain but that is soooooooo like a 17 year old I am lmao...not at you  and certainly not with you....but dammit it would be funny in a sitcom.

  6. Oh Lisa, I feel for you and your frustration ... and I laugh at you (but only a little).   We have ONE employee.  Any more than that -- Dave & I would commit -- something.  We make do and work ungodly hours to get through horrendously busy weeks.  But it's all good.  At least, that's what I tell myself as I finish up another late night of office work all the while knowing I really need to write the mortgage check which will have to wait until the morrow.