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July 27, 2017

Are You Building Contracts or Relationships?

At 15 years old, I started my career as a hostess at a local restaurant in Tulsa, Oklahoma. That began what would be an 18-year career in the restaurant industry. It was an industry that I loved, and still love to this day, but after many years, I felt like I had to make a change. I was about to be promoted to District Manager. I was 35 and was told I had a bright future, but I didn’t see my work-life balance changing. So I left.
Apparently, I wasn’t alone in my decision. According to Black Box Intelligence (formerly TDn2K) research, many restaurant workers are not only quitting their jobs frequently but they are leaving the restaurant industry altogether. The big question is, why? In my humble opinion, it’s because we don’t always ask our employees what they truly want, and when we do, many times we fail to deliver the things they say matter most. Are we building relationships with our employees? Or are we still trying to build contracts?
Last week, Black Box Intelligence (formerly TDn2K) hosted the second annual HR Executive Summit in Dallas, TX. And it was inspiring. Not because of the wonderful speakers or thoughtful conversations, but because the content challenged traditional ideas about employee engagement and what it truly means.

Employee Engagement is about Relationships

“Employee engagement” is a phrase that we’ve all heard. We’re supposed to be doing it. But what does employee engagement truly mean and how does it look in your organization?
Jason Lauritsen, one of the Summit speakers and an employee engagement expert, gave a fresh perspective on that very subject in a way that I’ve never heard before. He talked about viewing employee engagement the way you would any other relationship you have in your life. The traditional way of thinking about employees is that they are “on contract” to perform a job. Jason challenged the audience to turn that idea on its head and instead build a relationship with your employees as you would with a friend or family member. Approach and react to them with the same kindness, respect and time as you would anyone outside of work.
“Create a work family,” Jason encouraged. “It’s not about ignoring or accepting bad behavior. It’s about pushing each other to be the best team player you can be while knowing they won’t be with you forever.” Wow! How powerful is that?

Avery Block, Manager of Customer Experience at Taco Bell, built on the “relationship” premise by saying that the idea that you give your employees an inch and they’ll take a mile is wrong. Instead, give your employees an inch and they’ll GIVE you a mile. THIS is a relationship.
Tom Gathers, Chief People Officer at Red Lobster, said that his team was a little surprised to find that their employees didn’t want some of the initiatives that they had rolled out such as pet insurance. Instead, they were more interested in dental…because good teeth equals good tips, right? Who knew? His unit-level employees, that’s who. But had he not asked and then acted on that feedback, his company would have spent time and resources on something that wouldn’t have mattered to his people. Tom and his team took the time to learn and listen. THIS is a relationship.
Treating employee engagement as a relationship seems like such a simple idea with the ability to have a powerful impact. It would shape your culture in ways you can’t imagine and spread throughout your organization like wildfire.
I love Black Box Intelligence (formerly TDn2K) and can’t imagine working anywhere else. However, had employee engagement as a relationship been the status quo, I don’t think I ever would have stepped away from my restaurant career.
Unit-level employees live, eat and breathe “relationship” every day. They are the faces of our brands and the heart of our organizations. They are the reason that the hospitality industry exists and the reason we all get to wake up and do something we hopefully love. My goal in the next year is to build bigger and better relationships both personally and professionally. I’d love to have everyone join me and let me know how it goes.

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

Thank you to everyone who participated in this year’s HR Executive Summit. I’m already looking forward to our next Black Box Intelligence (formerly TDn2K) event, the annual Global Best Practices Conference in January!
Enjoyed this article? We suggest you read “Not All Restaurants Are Failing. Here’s How Some Are Staying on Top” to gain some insight on people, turnover, sales and why they are all important for keeping your restaurant afloat. 

Sheryl Coyne-Batson is the Senior Director of Business Development at Black Box Intelligence (formerly TDn2K). Follow her on Twitter at @scoynebatson, or email her at

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