Six Unconventional Ideas for Keeping Great Employees

By Kevin Tam

Keeping great talent has been difficult for many operators since COVID reopenings began recently across the world. Lockdowns have given many people time to rethink their careers and redefine what is important to them. As a result, a great wave of hospitality workers across the world quit their jobs and have either switched to different companies or left the industry altogether. To me, this says something about what employees really felt about their jobs (and their bosses) after they had time to sit and think about it. We should all look at this phenomenon as a giant wake-up call.retaining bar employees

All the talk right now is on finding new employees, but if you don’t have a strategy to retain people once they’re on board, you’ll constantly be searching for new people to replace a never-ending stream of people quitting. Searching for new people is difficult, expensive, and time consuming. But what if by building an active employee retention strategy, you could extend employee tenure and reduce turnover?

The operational and financial benefits of reducing turnover are massive. We all know what it is like to operate short staffed when key people quit right before the holidays, or some other kind of event that brings in a wave of business. Even small periods of time when you operate short staffed can leave a bitter taste (literally) in a customer’s mouth and ruin any chance of getting their repeat business. If even half of those people quitting were convinced to stay an extra month or two, that buys you time to operate fully staffed and replace people calmly instead of frantically.

But because every employer is thinking the same thing, it may take some out-of-the-box thinking to ensure your workplace is more appealing than the competition.

Here are six unconventional ideas to help you keep staff longer.

Idea #1: Re-Think Your Attitude Towards Paying People

Your attitude towards paying people says more about the quality of the job than anything else. Some employers pay people the least they can legally get away with. This is not wise. Employees require wages capable of supporting their needs and they must be paid promptly.

We all know how much it costs to live, and we also know as business owners how much each of our employees gets paid. If you sit down to do the math and see your key employees getting paid annual wages comparable to poverty line status, and they are driving around in rusted cars that are falling apart, this is not a good thing. It will only be a matter of time before these people move on to other opportunities.

To combat this in my own business, I genuinely want to see everyone that works with me financially succeed, and if that means pushing the labor cost to a percentage that’s above “industry norms,” then I will happily do so.

You will never lose by investing more in the happiness of your workers. The return on investment on happy and effective employees is massive. Great employees expand capacity and sufficient staffing levels deliver a better experience to the end customer. Knowing this motivates me to pay more and be extremely generous with opportunities to advance for those that want them. This is a very opposite way of thinking from some bar operators I have encountered that will cut people immediately if shifts are slow, or pay people late, or trim hours from pay checks in the hopes that no one will notice.

Instead, if you prioritize financial success to all people that work for you, you’ll naturally keep people longer because employees enjoy having a boss that is constantly pushing for them to make more money.

Idea #2: Get Your Marketing Act Together NOW

If you have a job opportunity where the tips aren’t that great because customers are sparse, don’t be surprised if you have a tough time finding the best of the best. There are some operators that claim they are struggling with hiring, but when you look at the shifts they have to provide, there are not enough customers during those shifts to keep a person financially interested in continuing.

I know a guy that complained about his inability to find workers, and when I asked him what kind of shifts he was offering, he said 2 x 5 hour shifts every couple weeks (and he pays minimum wage + tips). At the core, this is a marketing problem and the blame for this falls squarely on the owner’s shoulders. It is the owner’s responsibility to advertise, promote, and market the business so that there are enough busy shifts to keep the wages and tips flowing to the employees.

Some owners foolishly believe that it’s their employees’ responsibility to market and bring down customers. But this is not realistic. What kind of employee that is looking for part time work is going to know how to write newsletters, build a follow-up sequence, work with local media, and network with other businesses to book corporate functions? If they knew how to do all those things, they would own their own business, and they would not be working for you.

Look at the state of your business and be honest: If there’s no money to be made by your employees during the shifts you need filled, the blame for that falls squarely on you.

Market your business properly, get the customers in seats, and give your employees those opportunities to make the most they possibly can when they work for you.

Idea #3: Always Carry Lots of Cash and Give it Away

I give random cash bonuses to my employees all the time, out of my own profits, to keep morale up and to remind them of what an awesome boss they have.

I have had some seriously injured puppies work for me. By this I mean people that had obviously been bullied in other workplaces. And when I give them random cash bonuses, they are floored. I had one employee that was even moved to tears because the gift came at a time when they were seriously behind on bills. They’ve never had a boss sit down with them and tell them they’re important to the company and then hand them an envelope with $500 cash in it.

bartender labor shortage
Photo by Andrey Grodz on Unsplash

While that sounds crazy, what happens is that kind of interaction returns loyalty and longer retention. $500 in the long run is insignificant compared to the return a happy and cashed-up employee returns to me. That investment may even create another employee by way of referral because he goes and tells all his friends what an awesome employer he has.

But additionally, there is a psychological benefit to handing someone cash instead of a check or an electronic transfer. Cash implies that I am not expensing this or adding it to a person’s paycheck. Cash implies that it is a gift that comes from my own net income. This sends a message to anyone who receives it that you’re willing to give something out of your own pocket (not the company’s pocket) to help someone out. When people like the person they’re working for, they go the extra mile. And nothing says “I like you” more than a bundle of cash.

Idea #4: Look at Your Work Environment

Recently, I have noticed  a common trend in the conversations I am having with potential hires for my company. Many of them have reported being mistreated, not only financially, but emotionally at previous jobs. Some employees have told me that it was actually the emotional abuse that drove them to quit and search for other opportunities.

I have personally experienced toxic work environments in my journey through the industry. For example, I have worked in extremely chauvinistic bar / night club environments where sexual harassment was rampant. I have also worked in environments where there are groups within the team that look out for their small group of friends but then exclude others from better shifts and opportunities. In these environments, if you aren’t one of the “cool kids,” you just aren’t going to be given opportunities to advance or be provided adequate financial compensation.

We all know of bars and restaurants that allow these types of toxic work environments, and it is worth stopping to evaluate how much of this exists in our own businesses. As we search for new people, we need to ponder about the work environment we allow. To keep great people, they need to genuinely enjoy the social environment they’re working in. If they feel threatened or unsafe in any way, they will not like coming to work or staying at work, and it will only be a matter of time before they leave.

Idea #5: Show Everybody Respect

When it comes to interacting with employees, I have a rule that is based on biblical teaching, and it goes like this: Every man or woman that is my age or less is to be treated like a brother or sister. Every man or woman that is older than I am is to be treated like my father or mother.

Now my hope to you is that you grew up in a family where brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers loved each other and tried their best to do good for each other. Some people grow up in abusive homes, where people are causing harm to one another, and as a result, they have no concept of how to treat other people with respect in the workplace. This is something that needs to be in place from the ownership level down throughout the organization.

When the owner shows the team that there are no social barriers between the hierarchy of staff, this helps everyone in the organization feel respected. Showing people respect can be as simple as memorizing people’s names, stopping to make small talk, and showing empathy whenever people are having a tough day or there are difficulties in their lives.

This is a very counterculture idea. Many owners are used to having a nonstop flow of employees coming and going, and some owners put up an imaginary wall between them and the people performing menial jobs. Some pompously keep their circle restricted to the senior managers, business partners, and key vendors, and they never make any time for the little people.

But what if that extra five minutes an owner spent talking to the dishwasher and getting to know him (or her) resulted in that employee feeling respected, and therefore extended their tenure with the company by a couple months? What would that be worth as a dollar figure, if that same phenomenon were extended to every FOH and BOH staff member?

The saved money and the saved headache of constantly replacing people is worth that little bit of time. When the owner takes time and effort to show the workers that they care about them as people, it results in more people staying.

Remember: Very few of you reading this started out as the top dog, but now that you are, don’t forget where you started. Many of us have worked in those lowly but key positions in our restaurants and bars so we should never believe we are above the people that are doing those things for us now.

Idea #6: Show People Mercy

bar challenges
Photo: Bri Burkett for Nella Kitchen & Bar

How you respond when people make mistakes changes the way employees think about staying with your company. While it is common in the workplace and on reality TV to see the alpha people continually yell and berate their workers to get greater performance out of them, I remain skeptical of its long-term effectiveness.

As I have gotten older and wiser, I have come to realize there is a lot more to people than what we see in the workplace. Everyone comes from a different background, and some of those backgrounds are incredibly difficult. For example, some people come from homes where they were constantly yelled at, berated, and criticized by family members. Others may have been abused. I have even met people that have gone through the refugee process and fled war-torn areas. These people are all carrying tremendous amounts of unresolved trauma, and this affects every area of their life, including their work habits.

Now you may be thinking, “As a business owner what do I care about any of that stuff? All I care about is how they perform on the job.” Yes, while that is true, if you don’t try to get to know and understand people, it’s more likely you’ll say something when they make a mistake that will make them leave in frustration. Instead, if you take a minute to contemplate what it must have been like to walk in that person’s shoes, with their home environment, family structure, culture, and various health challenges, then it becomes easier to relax, cut them some slack, and then proceed calmly to instruct them how to do better.

As with the other recommendations in this list, having a boss that shows unusual levels of mercy is baffling to employees that are used to being yelled at and intimidated when they screw up. I’ve noticed that people who have never experienced mercy before almost don’t know how to react when they receive it. This tells me people don’t have this happen very often at work.

If your workplace develops a reputation for being exceptionally forgiving, less people will dread coming to work, and the average employee duration will likely increase.


Kevin Tam is a Sculpture Hospitality franchisee with over a decade of experience working directly with bar, restaurant, and nightclub owners on all points of the spectrum. From family-owned single bar operations to large companies with locations on an international scale, Kevin works with them all and understands the unique challenges each kind of company faces. He is the author of a book titled Night Club Marketing Systems – How to Get Customers for Your Bar. He is also a regular writer for Bar & Restaurant and publisher of an eBook called: The 5 Commonly Overlooked Areas That Kill Your Food Cost.