HUMAN RESOURCES: Sticking with it – The real reason behind employee loyalty

Is there a secret formula to finding and keeping employees in the service industry? At a time when the tenure of workers in this sector can be less than four months, why are some local businesses celebrating 5-, 10-, even 20-year anniversaries of front line associates?

You might think that they’ve just been fortunate to find hard-working employees, instilled with a dedicated work ethic. But the employees will tell you differently. They’ll say that the formula is no secret. In fact, it’s an old idea: team work. Feeling part of a team is the main reason three businesses in Traverse City have managed to retain staff members.

At the U.S. 31 Big Boy, Debbie Blonshine, a waitress of almost 19 years, explains her longevity, saying, “It’s the atmosphere.” The core crew has been together for years. They know each other and care for one another. Amy LaForest, a 16-year veteran at the Traverse City Days Inn, agrees. “The job requires long hours, so we care about each other. We have to keep each other going.”

Jackie Davis has been behind the service counter for five of the eight years she’s worked at Prevo’s Chums Corner store. While she enjoys the job, she’s remained because of her co-workers. “You spend more time with people you work with than your own family,” she said, noting the importance of working with a cooperative team.

When talking with long-termers, it’s clear that these businesses embrace four teamwork attitudes:

1. Management is a part of the team. Nancy Hendrickson of the produce department at Prevo’s says management works side-by-side with employees. “They pitch in to help. It’s a team.”

Six-year employee Sandy Harrand agrees, commenting, “The associates are close to management.” Cathy Nolan, housekeeping supervisor with 13 years experience at Days Inn, says, “The owners come and check on the staff. They ask if we need help and then they pitch in.”

2. Management cares about the team. The team attitude at Days Inn comes from more than making beds beside the general manager. It’s fostered by owners who know employees by name and face.

Denise Fuller, breakfast cook at Big Boy for 10 years, found that caring attitude went beyond the restaurant’s doors–even beyond her employment in Traverse City. When she briefly worked for another franchise in Manistee, Mark Hamlyn, Traverse City franchise owner, would drop in to see her. “He’d call just to make sure I was OK.”

James Klingelsmith has been on the cook’s line at Big Boy since ’80. There’s no question why he’s stayed.

“Mark’s great. He takes care of you. He listens to you.”

3. Management respects their team. “Management treats us like professionals,” remarked Amy LaForest, executive housekeeper at Days Inn.

“They let me run my department. Cheryl (Baldwin, general manager) listens and gives advice. She doesn’t tell me what to do.”

For Larry Carlson, 11 years as Big Boy prep cook, respect means being considerate. “We’re treated well. They’re fair and courteous.”

4. Management rewards team members. At Prevo’s, perishables manager Dave Rosa, a 13-year veteran himself, sees praise as the easiest, most immediate reward. But he also uses incentives like a “Gotcha Coin,” awarded when an employee goes above and beyond expectations.

He believes in promoting within the store, and often recruits from other departments to fill vacancies.

Debbie Blonshine’s nametag notes she is an 18-year employee at Big Boy. That simple recognition brings positive comments from customers–including the suggestion that she should be part-owner by now. While wage and benefit packages undoubtedly play an important role in attracting and maintaining employees (each of the three businesses offers progressive packages), they usually aren’t the main factors that create company loyalty.

Over and over, the valuable workers I talked to stated that a team atmosphere matters most in the work place.

Employers must invest time and energy into building the team atmosphere–the climate that makes their business a good place to work for a long run.

Anne Riegler, a 22-year veteran of the hospitality industry, is an associate with This Time Business Institute, a training and consulting firm to the service industry. BIZNEWS