Faces of HR

One Restaurant Group’s Approach to Engagement and Communication

Everyone knows how challenging the pandemic was for the food service industry. Navigating a restaurant group must have been very difficult. In this “Faces of HR,” I spoke with Katie Laudick, VP of HR and Operating Partner at Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, whose 39 restaurants comprise 18 different concepts with locations in 12 states, to learn more about solving some of the largest HR issues in the food service industry.

How did you find yourself in HR?

HR, to be honest, was never a goal for me. I was given an opportunity to be in an HR internship for recruiting, and I knew nothing about HR at the time. I was a junior going into my senior year of college, and my entire summer was scanning résumés into the computer. That was pretty much the extent of my job description. I saw my boss, the VP of HR and VP of recruiting, actually recruit. I saw him constantly talking to individuals, taking them to lunch and meeting with candidates all day. Finally, I started talking to him about his role, and he kind of shared with me the point of his role with recruiting, and I thought, wow, you can really get paid just to talk to people all day. I’m in it.

I realized that I was really intrigued by that area in a business. I naturally kind of saw it as sales. I thought, you know what, if I’m going to get into recruiting, I need to find a product I ultimately believe in. I read an article about Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, his “promote from within” mentality, the culture—it connected with me. I got a job as a server because I was still in school getting my degree. The first day on the job, I asked for an HR internship, and a couple of months later, I started as an HR intern. That was the start.

 

That’s a great story. You definitely hear about people working at an organization with a different role before they get into HR. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone going from server to HR, but it’s inspiring really. You said they like to promote from within; clearly, that is done in practice, too.

Absolutely. I think it would be great if it were a prerequisite for any HR role, if you’re going to be in HR in a business, to actually need to work in a different capacity as a way to connect to what they’re going through. I’ve been with this company 20 years. I am very blessed with my career. Every now and then, I get labeled a promotion from within, that I came from operations. But I can’t really still say I’m from operations because I’ve been in the HR world for about 18 years. However, I do remember what it was like to be on a Friday night shift. I remember what it’s like to talk to our associates; everything funnels through a manager because most of our associates are not sitting in front of an e-mail talking to HR. All of that is really important when we think about our role as HR—who we’re actually supporting.

When you think of other HR roles in other companies, whether it’s a factory or a larger organization, they should have some sort of connection or frequent focus groups and connect to the actual people they’re supporting.

 

It makes a lot of sense. At first, I thought you meant it should be a prerequisite for people to work in food service before they go into HR.

I always say retail and restaurants are definitely things I think people should have on their résumé. So, I’ll plug that in, too.

 

Yeah, both of those can be very difficult worlds to be in. I’ve worked plenty of food service myself—pretty much every imaginable role—and the speed with which you can go from being absolutely bored to completely overworked is such chaos, but you do learn a lot. I agree with what you were saying about getting to know the product your organization sells and getting to know what the employees are really going through. Do you have any advice for HR professionals who maybe don’t feel like they’re doing that very well? How might they get started, or how might they explore that?

I think you’ve got to almost press pause in your day-to-day job, and everyday HR functions. Traditionally HR is known to have administrative tasks to it. Unfortunately, sometimes you don’t get into all of the roles that get away from that admin task until you are at certain areas within HR. To get past that, I would encourage them to have the support from leadership to say, “Hey, we’re going to push pause on some of these initiatives. We’re going to get our day-to-day stuff done, but we’re going to do some focus groups. We’re going to sit there and have some great conversations.” A lot of times, people think HR is the big, bad, scary wizard behind the curtain. We need to have the more proactive approach of being where employees see that HR is here to break down barriers and provide support, and show that HR doesn’t just come out when there’s an issue. I think it’s going to open up their world.

HR professionals feel they are very in tune with what the organizational needs are and what our associates’ needs are. I tell you; you get a good, quick reality check sometimes when you have those conversations or go into a restaurant or on the floor of a factory or into some of those offices and speak with everyone who is doing the work. Have those conversations: How are you? What’s your stop doing list? What can we do to support you? What are the challenges?

I would encourage HR professionals to just push pause, take their black-and-white HR hat off, put the gray one on, and just communicate.

 

What do you think is the value of an employee engagement survey versus a focus group? Do you find one to be superior or have better value?

I think both of them are equally valuable depending on how you actually want to utilize them. Focus groups are great to start that connection, but it’s on us to create an environment where someone feels safe enough to share that feedback. There’s a little bit of responsibility that we have when we’re in front of them and they’re telling us this information; then, we have to do something with it. There’s a layer of trust and the ability to allow vulnerability for someone to feel honest with you in the moment.

A focus group is great to really dive in more. HR is very good about asking questions. “Tell me more”. “What do you mean about that?” “Can you give me an example?” Those are really great when you’re looking for very specific feedback, something to take away and really come up with some great action items.

On the other hand, an employee engagement survey is especially great for a couple of different reasons. If your organization is pretty large and you have to hit the masses, or maybe it’s a sensitive topic and the relationships or the opportunities aren’t there and people can’t be vulnerable in person, then a survey gives them the option to share that feedback. The engagement surveys are also helpful with remote workers, and they’re helpful with all different levels of language barriers. There are a lot of different angles.

I don’t know if one’s more important than the other; it may depend on the topic, but none of them are going to be successful unless you actually do something with the feedback. I think oftentimes, you can over-survey or over-focus group, but if you don’t do anything with that feedback, then you’ve kind of lost your credibility and the reason you’re actually doing them.

 

I completely agree. The reason I was asking was to sort of get at that notion of trust because originally, we were talking about how someone in HR gets to know his or her employees a little bit better or maybe gets to know the different groups within an organization. And when someone like HR enters the groups’ space, it can be difficult for the employees to trust him or her. Whether you’re doing an employee engagement survey or a focus group or if you’re just sort of spending some time with the managers and employees, getting the trust part right is one of the more difficult things to do, but it’s also clearly the most important thing.

Absolutely. You want to create an environment where your associates will come to you no matter what, whether it’s a pay issue, it’s a performance concern, it’s an associate relations issue, or they are having trouble knowing how to promote themselves. You need to really ask yourself, depending on where you are in your HR role: “What is the goal of your role?” And the goal is really to support them.

What I talk about that within my own leadership, I remind our entire department we are here to break down barriers. ‘Why is an associate not being successful?’ ‘Why is an associate having an issue with his or her pay?’ ‘Why is an associate running into these concerns?’ Listening is key and knowing how to turn off the internal dialogue. We need to know how to truly listen to them, and be vulnerable. Vulnerability builds trust, and you have to be in the moment. Oftentimes, I think you even have to caution yourself to stop taking so many notes when you’re talking to somebody and actually engage with the person because he or she will feel like, ‘oh no, she’s writing down everything I’m saying’. You have to look your associates in the eye and treat them as people, not a case.

 

Is there anything you’re really excited about accomplishing by the end of the year or maybe early into next year?

What a great question. We have accomplished a lot so far! I mean, we’ve had one interesting year and a half of goals and accomplishments that were really not on our goals list in 2019. What I will say is through the pandemic and through the challenge we’ve had, we learned about the importance of strong communication, especially in the hospitality industry. I kind of referenced earlier that our associates are not sitting in front of a computer. Our associates are not sitting on their phones. We don’t have that direct contact with them. When we removed that general manager, when we removed that direct report, we had to ask ourselves: ‘How are we talking to Sally, the server?’ ‘How are we going to talk to Jim, the line cook, or Eduardo?’ ‘How are we going to really communicate with them directly?’

Then we ask: What is the right way to communicate? When we started strategizing our goals for this year, we were focusing on that. Our main goal was communication. From that, we said, OK, what does that mean? How do we communicate to them? How can we create an interaction directly with them and remove that middle person? The next step is something I’m excited about. We asked ourselves: What about our Spanish-speaking associates? What about our individuals at some of our properties who speak French Canadian? Are we translating our information correctly to make sure they get that? That really opened up all of our HR practices to say, “Wow, we need to really rethink everything we’re doing,” like our benefits, our memos, and our vacation communication. What I’m excited about is that our department has really started to translate everything we have—every form, every way. We actually are currently working on onboarding documents to be in video format and to be multilingual.

We want all of our associates sitting down, making sure they’re truly hearing our culture and philosophies and they’re truly hearing everything in the benefits. All of our onboarding would be translated.

 

Yeah, it’s very interesting. There are other industries besides food service where you have similar situations—safety professionals, manufacturers, and I imagine you see things in construction and other industries. How did you solve that communication issue?

Well, technology was a factor. We had to look at the technology we currently had. We were not in a position to say, “Hey, let’s get an intranet right now when we’re shut down and develop this great communication tool.” We had to think creatively. We had to give our current managers, the current chefs, tools to communicate. We also have our payroll system, our HRIS system. We utilize that way more than we ever did. That was really the home base. We knew everyone knew about it. We knew everyone was going to look into that for paychecks and pay dates and updates. We really utilized what everyone, at least at some point, had to touch, whether it was through their onboarding or through benefit renewal. We knew most people were going to go through that homepage.

Naturally, we used a scheduling tool. We knew that it was a way people were still logging in and looking at the company information, in addition to basic e-mail addresses. In our e-mails, we knew they had to be sent in multiple languages. We also set up a separate e-mail that was used of as a help line while we were shut down. It was interesting in the early days. It was just me late at night, responding to a line cook, a guest service, or a server about a paycheck. I had to translate it in whatever language it was coming in, too. So, we utilized a lot of different translation services to just be able to communicate—e-mail, our payroll system, and then that chain of tools that we gave our managers to reach out through the scheduling tool.

 

What a nuts-and-bolts problem, especially having to deal with more than one language. That must have been quite the experience. Are you having fun doing it?

I am. I mean, that, to me, is the epitome of that barrier. Imagine what we can do when we break that barrier down, and it is; it’s exciting. I think most people in this level of leadership are very goal-oriented. I threw the goal ahead of me. I see the challenge, and I’m excited for the other side. I’m excited for the iceberg and when it flips over and to see everything else you’re able to do with it. So yes, it is fun. I don’t think you can be in HR if you don’t genuinely find that joy in the purpose. I feel very blessed that I have an organization that allows me to have both.