How to Set Up HR Policies for Your Restaurant

Here’s a stat that restaurant operators can feel in their gut: There are 70% more restaurant job openings right now than there were pre-pandemic, according to Business Insider. The worst global health crisis in modern history has not been kind to hospitality. Now restaurants, in the thick of re-establishing themselves, are struggling to attract and hold talent.

Offering competitive wages and a prestige name is no longer enough to lure great employees. Restaurant human resources departments have to get creative, says Kelly Peters, the head of HR at Indigo Road Hospitality Group, a two-dozen-property-strong restaurant brand.

If you’re a restaurant building up your HR capacity, she offers some of the usual pro tips every HR leader needs to be aware of: documenting policies and conflicts, digitizing all billing and communications, and trying to always stay neutral in the face of tensions in the workplace. But once you’ve covered your backside, she recommends turning to the other role of restaurant human resources, which is to help build a company people actually want to work for.

HR restaurant policies you should establish

The basic advice from Peters is this: create a comprehensive company manual. Even if you can’t afford an entire HR team, having a legally reviewed employee manual complete with all workplace policies and expectations will give your staff a framework to follow, and you a backup to refer to when questions or concerns come up.

That checklist should include but not be limited to:

Sick days.

Time off may be different for salaried versus hourly staff. To avoid confusion, develop time-off policies and for each tier of staff member, dishwashers to managers. You can write these to suit your particular operation; at Indigo Road — a large operation that needs to keep things streamlined — sick and vacation time both count as paid time off. Your needs may differ somewhat.

Complaints and open-door policies.

The high-profile harassment scandals in the restaurant industry contain a lesson: You need policies in place for staffers to report concerns and complaints. Peters makes sure Indigo Road employees understand that she maintains an open-door policy (albeit virtual) and is always accessible via phone.

A smaller operation may not have an HR manager who can receive those complaints. All the more reason, then, to put in writing a chain of command and clear steps that workers can follow to report concerns. Have an employment attorney review the policy document, and make sure your managers are following it to the letter. Your business might depend on catching problems when they’re small.

A code of conduct.

Any good business lays out an expected code of conduct in its employee manual, to make explicit the company’s core values and staff expectations. Anything goes here: cell phone usage, dress code, customer expectations, and unacceptable behavior. You don’t want managers dating people they manage? Say so here. You want to let smokers know where and for how long they can take breaks? This is where you spell it all out.

Zero-tolerance policies.

Everywhere has lines that cannot be crossed. It’s only fair to your new hires, and to your established employees, that everyone knows what these are, if there can be any ambiguity whatsoever — safety, harassment, sexism, racism, whatever it is for you and yours. At Indigo Road, a bright red line is drinking on the job. “That means before, during, and after,” Peters says. “And no shift drink.” The company instituted the move six years ago to safeguard the company from lawsuits and worker's comp issues.

Late or absentee policies.

Is being late to work a fireable offense? How will your staff know unless you tell them. Peters says Indigo Road tries to give employees second chances (see, for instance, their sobriety support program, below). But when repeat tardiness hurts service, a policy needs to be in place to deal with problems of punctuality. In short: Put it in writing.

Tip reporting.

How does your restaurant handle tips? To avoid errors, accounting snafus, or lawsuits, explain in your manual exactly how tips should be handled. Add a training element as well to ensure all staff are on board and understand the practices.

Documentation procedures.

It’s not enough to print an employee manual and call it a day. Whether it’s keeping tabs on a staffer’s time off or noting a complaint, Peters says, “document everything.” If you don’t have an HR team, designate a manager or administrator as point person to handle all HR concerns so they can track issues and maintain a paper trail. It protects staff and the business.

To ensure your HR policies are followed, write them in clear language and make sure people read them.

Restaurant employee benefits that generate loyalty

For Peters and her team, weathering the pandemic has been about finding ways to show current and potential staffers that working at Indigo Roads is different from other restaurant careers. Peters has instituted five key HR policies and programs she says restaurants should consider to attract and to keep their workers. Here are some of the effective HR policies that might be right for your restaurant or hospitality portfolio.

Sobriety support.

At Indigo Road, fostering a healthy workplace is fundamental to the brand. Founder Steve Palmer is a vocal proponent of sobriety and in 2017 founded the restaurant support group Ben’s Friends. As a recovering addict, Palmer has made sobriety support an HR initiative at Indigo Road.

“In the restaurant industry, if you have an employee who is struggling with sobriety, the tendency is to say, ‘You’re fired,’” Peters says. Instead, when an Indigo Road employee seeks help, the company helps get them treatment provided they agree to come to work sober, attend a meeting of their choice once a week, and give recovery a real chance.

The benefit is working. A few employees have used the program, which has in turn made the company more attractive to chefs and staffers looking for a sober safe space to work.

Paid family leave.

Every time an Indigo Road employee has a baby, the kid gets a chef’s coat with their last name embroidered on it. A small gesture, maybe, but a signal that the company wants to support families and values the lives its workers live away from the job.

In the restaurant world, paid time off can be elusive. But the company offers a PTO of four weeks to its salaried employees and two weeks to its hourly wage-earners, and gives new parents maternity and paternity leave.

Indigo Road also gives employees one health day a year where they can get an annual physical or check-ups. Every employee also gets two free days to volunteer with a nonprofit. “Maybe someone wants to help out with Habitat for Humanity,” Peters says. “They’re not going to be penalized without pay.” Because giving back to the community is part of the company’s mission, this time is seen as a realization of that goal.

A home loan program.

Another innovative HR program Indigo Road offers employees is help in buying a home. The company offers 50/50 interest-free matching loans to employees who can show they have the financial wherewithal to pay back the loan within three years. The amounts aren’t staggering — Peters says employees might ask for $5,000 or $10,000 to help with their down payment. When Indigo matches them, employees feel goodwill and loyalty to the company, and by dint of buying a home become more invested in remaining in the community where they work.

Honoring staff and management, gainfully.

Yeah, winning employee awards are fun and all, but you know what’s even better? Winning, plus money. Four times a year, Indigo Road names a regional employee of the quarter, which comes with the title and a $500 gift card. And twice a year the company rewards standout managers with $1,000 stipends.

Camp team-building.

Every summer, Indigo Road gathers its brain trust — management, leadership, and every chef and GM — for a getaway of learning and fun. Everyone heads to a place like Asheville, North Carolina, grinds through a day of programming, and then gets a chance to chill and bond with their co-workers. “One day will be for meetings,” Peters says, “and the next we’ll go white water rafting or on a ropes course or have a spa day.”

Restaurant HR policies don’t have to be limited to having an updated employee manual and managing time-off requests. It includes the creativing thinking and win-win programs that ultimately make a restaurant or restaurant group stand out. And Peters says good HR leaders would do well to listen to their teammates to determine exactly what they want and need to build a company that works toward the greater good.

“I tell our team: ‘I work for all of you, not just the founder,’” she says.

[Photo by Rendy Novantino on Unsplash]