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Recruiting and Retaining Quality Dietary Department Employees

Clint Maun, CSP

As leaders we must realize that the ability to provide our service is directly dependent upon the quality of our personnel. Organizations we consult and work with are constantly faced with the challenge of recruiting and retaining quality employees. We sometimes hear managers say they have almost given up trying because it is so difficult finding people with a strong work ethic or it is impossible to find people who really want to make the dietary field a career. It is no wonder then, that we have problems maintaining a quality workforce when our attitude is somewhat negative about our capabilities to be successful in this area.

Many organizations have a scientific approach to components in the technical completion of their work. There is a science for food preparation, nutrition, and menu planning. There is a science to preparing a successful meal and assuring its quality. If that is true in the technical delivery of our job accomplishment, it must also be true that there is a science to recruiting and retaining quality employees.
We are in the "people" business, not the health/human service or dietary business. Our ability to successfully produce results through people, for people, is what our business is about.


To successfully affect a scientific approach to recruiting and retaining quality employees, you must first work on the retention component. By being "tough" on the retention component you are in a position to reduce your constant need for recruitment efforts. You are also in a position to provide product consistency on an ongoing basis. With retention as the key, there are several critical components that make for success.

First, you must organize. Collect data on exactly where your turnover is occurring, specifically by position, shift or location and look at the causes and issues associated with turnover in that particular area. It does no good to talk about general turnover figures when you may be replacing a part-time afternoon shift position six times a year. That is 600 percent turnover for that individual position! Analyzing the specifics of this turnover and why it is occurring is your first step in implementing a successful retention program.

In addition, you must complete an ongoing set of objective exit interview questions for each person who leaves your organization or transfers to another area. This will assist you in finding themes or trends associated with why people are leaving. After you complete these assessments, conduct ongoing wage, salary, and benefit surveys to determine where you rank in the marketplace. It is important to know your competition by being specific in your assessments of where you stand in relationship to them. This allows you to make realistic plans in the areas of wage, salary and benefits you offer.

We believe you should rank somewhere above the mid point in a highly competitive market to be successful in retaining employees. It does little good to rank at the very top or bottom of the list. We have found the best success when organizations are competitive above the mid point in these areas.

After completing these assessments, one additional set of assessments must be addressed - surveys on the employees themselves, on an ongoing basis. This allows you to obtain an objective employee opinion process where people have the opportunity to relate themes or trends associated with working relationships and the department. It's generally not one incident that counts; it's the ongoing theme or trend that signifies a problem in working conditions or relationships associated with the function.

In addition, you need to complete customer satisfaction surveys. These allow you to use the information as a basis for employee feedback on how they are meeting their customers' needs. This allows people to have appropriate feedback on an ongoing basis rather than waiting for audit surveys or end-of-the-year performance evaluations. These surveys and assessments are critical to the retention effort.

You must be willing to look at other components critical in the success of retaining employees. These efforts include:
  • Involving employees in problem solving and decision-making.
  • Making sure there is some fun associated with the work effort.
  • Using team-based empowerment techniques to ensure there is active, on going involvement by all individuals.

These strategies are being successfully utilized by many organizations, but there are a number of them that are hesitant to use these involvement techniques. However, they are critical components of retention, particularly for today's younger workforce.

People today expect to be involved, and expect the workplace to be a meaningful addition to their lives. Many of us grew up in situations where we went to work, did a hard days' work, and then had fun after work. Today's worker, particularly the younger worker, expects to have some type of meaningful involvement throughout the workday or they will look for alternatives in which to "pick up a paycheck". This leads us to a discussion about supervisory methods, coaching issues, and an evaluation of how we're leading the organization with a group of managers and supervisors who may have a different attitude than the individuals they are recruiting.

You need to take a good look and discuss with your supervisors and managers the types of things needed to retain individuals today. It is understandable that there are many time-oriented tasks that must be performed in the dietary department. It is how you turn these into some type of effort for meaningful involvement by the workforce that makes a difference on whether individuals will decide to show up for work and stay working in your location.

Last but not least, for improved retention, it is critically important that you have a positive, passionate orientation program. Lack of an orientation program is over one-third of the reason for failing to retain individuals. Too often, people are thrown into work assignments without a true understanding of how to be successful. And, if we're not proactive, the people who are desperately complaining about needing the position filled are often the ones not providing initiative in the orientation process.

There must be an on-going conversation with all employees about the need for appropriate orientation. Prepare a sequenced a checklist that is reviewed with the new employee in a planned fashion. New employees must be given a chance to demonstrate their success and ask questions in the early stages of their employment. They must also be given an opportunity to have an appropriate mentor or sponsor that allows them to feel they can receive answers to their questions. We must not get into a position of saying we're too busy, and can't take the time to work with a new employee.

Once you decide to implement a passionate orientation program, you need to utilize involvement from individuals in designing that program so it is meaningful and meets the needs of the organization and customers, and meets rules and regulations, etc. This involvement technique is one of the greatest benefits in obtaining ownership in the operation for the success of a new employee.


In addition to being successful with various approaches to retention, you must also have an appropriate approach to the selection of new employees. We believe through training on behavioral interviewing techniques it is possible, with planning and development, to involve co-workers in the selection process. Their questions would address concerns about cooperation, dependability, initiative, attitude, etc. When you ask the right questions, you can get the right answers.

The way to conduct a behavioral interview is to ask questions about how people have handled certain situations in their past. This sets up the method for listening to how they would handle a situation in their future. The past is the best predictor of the future. The behavioral interviewing approach allows the organization to pre-select questions to get the important themes and make a difference on the appropriate hiring. It does no good to have a retention effort if you're hiring the wrong types of people who don't meet the requirements of the job. The behavioral interview, therefore, would ask questions, such as:

Bill, how have you handled a situation in the past when you weren't' going to be able to show up for work or school? Please describe to me how you handled that situation.

This question allows us to determine how Bill handled that situation in the past, and it is likely to be the way he'll handle it now and in the future. This is much different than asking Bill how he would handle situations in the future. Once again, the past is the best predictor of the future.


Once we set up a scientific approach to selection and retention, we must also have a scientific approach to the recruitment of quality individuals. The way you do this is by basing your recruitment efforts on the strengths of your organization instead of the weaknesses. Many dietary managers are constantly looking at why we can't find people to hire, instead of how we are able to successfully retain quality individuals.

In every organization we've ever worked with, there is a handful up to a large group of quality individuals who behaviorally meet the requirements of what we call a "talented employee".

They show up for work. They willingly work extra shifts or time. They initiate extra efforts when they are finished with their work assignments. They have excellent feedback scores in customer satisfaction surveys. They have low tardiness. They have superior performance evaluations. They are respected in the organization as individuals to be used as mentors for new employees.

These talented individuals - through all of your other internal problems - have continued to work in your organization and do a fantastic job. The behavioral requirements sort out a subjective opinion about whether potential candidates are talented or not. This allows us to be very focused on what we're looking at as talented individuals. Sit down with them in a separate location and talk with them. You might even want to have a recognition event to talk with them. It might be possible to bring them together and say something like:

You five individuals are talented. Let me tell you what I mean by that. You have shown excellent service to our organization. There are no absences in the last six months by any of you. There is only one tardiness among this entire group. You all have superior performance evaluations. You willingly changed assignments 40 times in the first three months. In other words, you folks are talented individuals. I don't get the opportunity to say that to you often enough and I should try to say that more often. We need more employees like you.

As you know, we have turnover issues in our organization. We also have trouble recruiting quality individuals. You have expressed concerns to me about this on many occasions. What we need to do is begin a scientific improvement effort based upon our strengths and not our weaknesses. You are the strengths of our organization, and I need to spend more time learning from you what we must do to be successful in our recruitment efforts. Today, after we've had time to celebrate your success, I want to ask you one important question, "Why do you work for this organization?" I want you to be truthful and honest, and I will listen.

After you've done the above, take notes and put your questions on a flip chart or something that allows the group to respond one at a time to why they work for this organization. You will find this to be a very touching, emotional time for many. You'll hear various things - benefits, working conditions, supervisory relationships, location of work, wage/salary issues, etc. These people will tell you things that remind you why they continue to come to work and do an excellent job.

After you've collected the information, ask them if they would be a part of your recruitment effort. Indicate you would like to meet with them every two weeks or so to determine if they know anyone else in their off-duty relationships that might be advantageous to interview for positions. You need to base your recruitment efforts on the strengths within your workforce. These individuals become part of your recruitment task force. In addition, ask permission to use their quotes in targeted recruitment advertisements.

In other words, we have to quit putting out ads based on weaknesses that read something like this:
  • Wanted.
  • Many openings.
  • Flexible hours.
  • Fringe benefits.
  • Call or apply in person.

They certainly don't want to pick up the phone and call a place that already looks like they need a lot of help and have a constant turnover problem. Send a message to talented individuals that you're selective about the kind of individuals you hire. These ads should say something like this:


  • Mary is one of the co-workers in the dietary department at XYZ organization.
  • She has worked here for six years and does the following things we particularly enjoy:
    • (List specific items that we like about Mary.)

In addition, Mary enjoys working here because:
  • (List specific items she quoted on why she likes working here.)

If you meet Mary's qualifications and like what she likes, please call for a professional appointment.

These ads are targeted toward the organization's strengths. It is important to place these ads in the right location. If we find that the individuals on our talent team never read the local newspaper, but pick up the free shopper paper, then that is where we put the ads. If we need to go on the radio, we'll put an ad on the radio station they listen to which would be an interview process addressing the same points as mentioned above in the written ad.

Whatever it takes to target our efforts to a particular marketplace we will do, but we must tie the strengths of our organizations to our recruitment efforts. This allows the organization to locate individuals who have common desires with individuals who are talented.

Using this scientific approach on an ongoing basis can produce amazing success, but it has to be blended with the selection and retention efforts mentioned. When you build a scientific program that begins with retention, moves toward selection and ends up with an approach that is strength based on recruitment, you can ensure long-term success in maintaining a quality dietary workforce.

If you would like more information on recruitment, selection and retention techniques click here.