November 4, 2021

How Small Businesses Can Cultivate Loyalty Amid the Great Resignation

Being transparent, flexible and generous are three key ingredients to reducing turnover

American workers are voluntarily leaving their jobs in record numbers this year, a trend often referred to as “The Great Resignation.”

To those of us in the retail, restaurant and hospitality industries, this storm is familiar. We battle high employee turnover even in the best of times, and “lifers” make up only a small percentage of our workforces.

Nevertheless, I have found it’s possible to cultivate long-term, loyal employee relationships—even in an industry known for high churn. Here is what I learned about finding and keeping good employees:

Be transparent

As owners, we are constantly contemplating the long-term plan for our business. We may assume that the people around us are thinking in the same strategic way, but often they’re just blocking and tackling in their daily job.

Not only is it critical to remind yourself of the timeline you’re on as a company, it is equally important to articulate an actionable, realistic road map for your company’s growth to your employees to help them see where and how they fit in it. Giving your team something tangible to strive for imbues their day-to-day work with more meaning and reassures them that you have their career development in mind.

If things are taking longer than expected, or you need to change course, communicate that too. Employees will be patient with you, as long you remain transparent.

Recruit like-minded people

Taking the time to establish your company’s mission and values helps you recruit like-minded employees, making them predisposed to loyalty from day one. Although I was theoretically in the food business, it was really about hospitality. I also brought a mentality from my technology days that felt much more like a startup than a bakery. I embodied a “do whatever it takes” mind-set and empowered my team to be the same way.

So, in hiring, we looked for candidates who took a genuine interest in people. We also wanted employees who were enthusiastic and willing to problem solve. These attributes were much more important than any previous bakery experience. We could train most people to do the work as long as they embraced our philosophy.

Set rules but be flexible

Face it: Most employees are not looking for a lifelong career when you hire them. That was especially true for me in a place like Los Angeles, many of those who work in the food world are pursuing other dreams outside their hourly day job.

So while it is important to set rules and boundaries for employees, it also is important to be flexible. Indeed, we found that by making space for employees to pursue their other passions, we were able to retain talent for longer.

For example, we once had a general manager who wanted to leave to pursue her dream of becoming a filmmaker. We offered her a position to stay on and make short films for us. She made some amazing films for us and remained an employee for a few years longer as a result.

If you give employees room to pursue what they love, they come to work as a more whole person, which contributes to a rich corporate culture.

Invest in and celebrate your people

True loyalty comes from reciprocity. You can’t expect your employees to invest their time and energy in your business, if you aren’t going to make actionable commitments to them in return. Offering real benefits—such as a 401(k) for both hourly and salaried employees, as well as health insurance, paid maternity leave and paid vacation—was one of the many reasons we were able to retain talent.

At the same time, loyalty should be publicly celebrated within the organization. We recognized employees on their work anniversaries, starting with certificates, then jackets, and now an anniversary gift program. It didn’t matter if it was a general manager or dishwasher, everyone received the same level of appreciation.

Don’t forget the fun

Finally, don’t be scared of having a little fun outside of work hours. The idea of the company party might seem quaint, but it serves a purpose. It’s an easy and fun way to boost company morale, and allow organic interactions across the hierarchy of your company. I would argue that in today’s world of remote and hybrid work, it’s more important than ever for employees to enjoy a shared experience, even if it is virtual.