May the (Work) Force Be With You

By Julie Ritzer Ross | June 10, 2008

Hospitality operators face a Catch-22 when grappling with labor-related issues. On one side lies pressure to keep a lid on turnover rates and human resources expenditures; on the other, a push to satisfy ever-louder demands for top-tier customer service. However, a variety of workforce management tools can mitigate some of these difficulties, for both hotels and restaurants.

Assessing abilities
Increasingly, technology is playing a role in streamlining the employee application process by enabling hospitality players to do a more effective job of assessing and tracking prospects. For example, in considering potential candidates for a management position, a restaurant or hotel operator might enlist software to evaluate individuals' cognitive ability, service-mindedness, social outlook and work-related situational judgment, as well as to get a better handle on whether they possess the specific personality traits that users may deem essential to job performance. Practical knowledge, such as applicants' grasp of mathematics and grammar, may also evaluated.

Some systems can be set to flag items that may be of concern or that may warrant further investigation, such as a lack of work experience or a seemingly negative trait. Others permit information from new employees' applications and/or resumes to be uploaded into electronic profiles that may be augmented later on to reflect the acquisition of additional skills and responsibilities. In attempting to fill vacant positions from within the company, management can search databases containing these profiles to find personnel that fit specific criteria; for instance, crew members with a certain number of years of experience in a particular size restaurant.

Turnover turnaround
"We've found that bringing technology into the hiring process and looking at how candidates' tests compare with the benchmarks we've programmed into the system can predict on-the-job performance," notes Christopher Shand, director of human resources and management recruitment for the 16-unit Silver Diner chain headquartered in Rockville, Maryland (www.silverdiner.com).  "This minimizes turnover and the amount of time wasted sifting through applications," says Shand, from inappropriate candidates.

Shand credits the PFR Hiring System from CorVirtus (www.corvirtus.com) with helping to reduce Silver Diner's manager turnover rate from around 86 percent five years ago to 19.5 percent in 2007.  In addition to hiring recommendations, the Web-based system generates offer letters for management-level applicants and forwards their information to the right departments for processing. Shand receives regular reports detailing the results of tests administered and the actions being taken. Although hourly employees are not assessed via the system, the technology keeps tabs on their applications, which Shand says allows hiring to occur in a more timely fashion than in the past. He adds that the system also ensures consistency in judgment when deciding from among several prospective employees, improving the caliber of personnel and the customer experience.

Savvy scheduling
Other workforce management tools simultaneously control payroll costs and address customer service concerns through detailed, rather than general, labor forecasting and analysis. For instance, a hotel chain might rely on technology to monitor labor daily and compare it to revenue generated by various departments and/or actual hours worked versus pre-set schedules. It could also program its system to alert management when employees are about to exceed the number of hours they are supposed to work. This information can be used to make more informed decisions about where and to what degree staffing adjustments should be made in order to remain within budget.

In another vein, a restaurant operator may leverage a workforce management program to generate staff assignments based on such factors as individual employee's skills (e.g., directing one server who is good at juggling orders to cover seven tables and another server who is less adept at this task to cover five tables), traffic patterns, different serving requirements (e.g., buffet versus table service) or a combination thereof. Many systems allow hoteliers and restaurateurs to devise and analyze "what-if" scenarios, wherein they can see what might happen from a cost and/or service perspective should scheduling changes be executed. As an example, they could determine how much of a savings would be achieved by staggering employee schedules within a given department or the impact of assigning 'X' number of kitchen staff to handle 'Y' number of covers per hour rather than the current volume.

The Fairmont Chicago hotel (www.fairmont.com) expects to achieve an estimated $500,000 in payroll savings this year following its implementation of the Watson, RM labor forecasting and management suite from UniFocus (www.unifocus.com), states Andre Zotoff, general manager. "The savings is already coming, and will continue to come, from a variety of factors," he asserts. "They range from more effectively scheduling staff based on past history, to how many guests we're expecting and what else may be happening in town, to analyzing (again based on previous patterns) whether we may be able to handle anticipated guest volume with the same level of service if we send one employee home at 10 a.m. and another at 11 a.m. instead of keeping them both until 11 a.m. and blowing a hole in the budget."

Zotoff believes the system works well for the Fairmont Chicago in part because executives from the operations side meet with department managers every week to compare actual and forecasted labor expenditures and usage. "If the variances are high, we can address them as soon as possible," he observes.

Consistency counts
Similarly, labor forecasting and analysis executed via the Stromberg Enterprise Version 3.1 workforce management system (www.stromberg.com) enables Orlando, Fla.-based Rosen Hotels & Resorts (www.rosenhotels.com) to react more effectively to labor variables in its seven properties, without interfering with guest service. "If we're anticipating 1,000 banquet covers, our workforce and workforce management needs aren't going to be the same as if we think we're going to be handling 100 covers," explains Jim Bina, IT director. Bina says the Web-based system also paves the way for quickly identifying deviations from par staffing levels and who is responsible for them, on a very granular level. "We can go to a manager and ask, for example, why he had employee number one, employee number two and employee number three on duty for one, two and three hours extra," Bina explains. "Sometimes, the reason is legitimate. Maybe a crew has been doing some planned renovation work. Other times, it's not. But only when a tool puts a schedule against prescribed staffing levels can you really maintain a handle on costs and continue to man [operations] properly."

For some hotel and restaurant operators, technology is also the key to ensuring adherence to rules surrounding overtime, lateness and absence. Such is the case for Shooting Star Casino (www.starcasino.com) in Mahnomen, Minnesota, which through the Kronos For Gaming system from Kronos (www.kronos.com) has decreased its overall overtime percentage from 2.2 percent to 1.3 percent, reports Gretchen Stalboerger, payroll administrator. The reduction was made possible because the solution prevents employees from working unauthorized extra hours, Stalboerger explains.

Additionally, Shooting Star uses the system to track absences as they occur, identify which employees do and do not qualify for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and apply an identical set of standards to every employee for an identical infraction. "We have many employees who share rides to work, but before we put the system in place, people from different departments who arrived in the same car 15 minutes late weren't necessarily penalized the same way, if at all," Stalboerger states.

"Similarly, we had many cases where managers thought a staff member was eligible for FMLA and put the paperwork through, but in another department, someone with the same circumstances was said not to be eligible. This is no longer the case. Our workforce management is much more consistent, all around."

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