Staffing pressures have built noticeably this year, and restaurant operators are employing more technology than ever before to recruit, hire, train and manage the increasingly hard-to-find workforce.

Declining unemployment rates are being felt among restaurateurs, said panelists in a “Leveraging Technology to Develop Your Employees” panel at the NRA Show.

“I feel like a switch got hit in January of this year,” said Kristen Zagozdon, vice president of human resources at Orland Park, Ill.-based Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants LLC, “and staffing has got so much more challenging.”

Zagozdon said restaurant operators are looking for new ways to improve the referral and hiring networks.

“We are not real excited about what we are seeing with the unemployment rate being so low,” she said. “We know it’s going to be challenging. We’re just making sure we are pulling all the levers in our technology to be sure people are engaged in helping us find great people.

Zagozdon’s fellow panelists — Mike Mott, vice president of human resources at Lebanon, Tenn.-based Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc.; Dawn Cacciotti, senior vice president of human resources at the National Restaurant Association; and moderator Peter Harrison, chief executive of hiring technology provider Snagajob — agreed.

Snagajob, for example, said hourly employees are increasingly turning to mobile smartphone devices to look for and find out about job openings. The company said its mobile traffic grew from 20 percent in December 2012 to 50 percent in July 2013.

Panelists said they have found some technology tools especially effective for hiring. Zagozdon said an applicant tracking system for hourly employees has been especially useful for her company.

“It’s helped us find great people, particularly in using their assessments so we make sure we know the type of candidate we are getting and that they are a great fit in our organization.”

Mott of Cracker Barrel said an employee portal has been most beneficial because it has helped cut back the hours spent on a “very time-consuming task.” Employees don’t have to come to the store to get their schedules, Mott said, noting that Cracker Barrel is also moving to an applicant tracking system for managers.

At the NRA, Cacciotti said she has found a performance review tool especially effective in goal setting and that it “has been beyond everything we had hoped for.”

In recruiting in an increasingly challenging employment environment, restaurants are tapping into current workers’ social networks.

Cooper’s Hawk, for example, offers referral rewards for current employees recommending candidates for hire: $50 for hourly employees and $2,000 for management. And the company urges employees to share employment opportunities with their networks.

However, social media has posed a challenge for human resources departments, the panelists said.

“It’s here and it’s something we embrace and have to understand,” said Mott of Cracker Barrel, noting that the company has a team of seven people that monitor social media sites. “If people are unhappy, they are going to voice their unhappiness. How we respond to it as an organization is critical.”

Going on the corporate defensive is not a good position, Mott said. Rather, he suggested a company identify the concern, investigate and try to let the guest or employee know the result.

Zagozdon said there are “enormous opportunities” in social media as well as challenges. “At the end of the day,” she said, “we do have a responsibility to educate our employees on how to use it, what’s appropriate and what they should be and can be sharing. We know they are excellent at communicating with the guests, but it’s important for them to understand there’s a little bit of exposure there when they post something on Facebook or Twitter.”

Contact Ron Ruggless at Ronald.Ruggless@Penton.com
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