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Hiring for Success

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Few things change slower than perceptions. For example, many owners still believe that hiring bartenders is a simple matter of placing a classified ad, opening the front door and making sure you have plenty of pencils handy. In today's job market, that's as likely as a Beatles reunion.

For lack of better terms, the job market in the last five years has gone from a seller's market to a buyer's market. The healthy economy and a rapidly expanding hospitality industry have caused a glut of bartending and server jobs. Where once there were many job applicants for every position, now there are several job openings from which an applicant can choose.

This reversal of fortune is forcing operators to re-evaluate their recruiting, selection and hiring practices.

"Regardless of the tight employment conditions, it is fundamentally important to consider this a selection and not a hiring process," says Loret Carbone, Director of Human Resources for Left At Albuquerque, a California chain of casual Southwestern restaurants. "The hiring process suggests you're looking for people to fill slots on the staff. The selection process places the emphasis on determining the most qualified and best-suited individuals for the position. The distinction between the two mindsets is crucial."

Successful Recruiting

The methods used to recruit applicants have changed.

"Placing recruitment ads in the classified section of the newspaper may once have been a viable option, but no longer. In fact, classified ads may yield the worst results of any recruiting tactic," says Todd Gunderson, Director of Human Resources at Louise's Trattoria, a Southern California chain of Italian eateries.

"Classified ads aren't cost-effective and they create an operational nightmare," says Erin DeMara, Manager of Newk's Cafe, a Key West-style bar and restaurant in Tampa. "What you tend to get is a cattle call, so to speak. Then you're left with the challenge of screening a large number of people, most of whom aren't even close to what you're looking for."

Echoing the opinion of other experts, Gunderson believes the most effective method of recruiting is soliciting personal references from bartenders on your staff. "References from bartenders whose opinion you trust is the most productive method of recruitment. They tend to recommend and personally vouch for people similar to themselves."

Michael Barry, Beverage Consultant for Dick Clark's Restaurants, concurs. "Whenever there is an opening on the bartending staff, we first consult with the bartenders on our staff and ask them if they know a bartender who's as professional as they are who would like to work for us. In nearly every instance, their recommendations have yielded excellent results." Bartenders at Left At Albuquerque get a $50 finder's fee if they suggest someone who stays on past the probationary period. Layne Schumann, General Manager of Studio nightclub in Birmingham, Ala., suggests shopping the competition's staffs.

"It's a highly advantageous way to recruit bartenders," he says. "You get an opportunity to see them in action, serving a comparable clientele in a similar setting. It provides an ideal opportunity to assess their abilities, something akin to an audition."

DeMara says many operators fail to maintain active application files.

"More often than not, the people who walk in seeking a bartending job have frequented your club and know the clientele. You know they're motivated to work for you, which definitely makes them people you want to talk to."

Screening Techniques

Not everyone who walks through your door looking for employment is suitable to hire. Committing an hour of a manager's time to interview every applicant is a waste.

One point of consensus among experts is to first have a clear vision of the qualities and attributes you're looking for in a bartender or server.

"You have to know exactly who you're looking for, or you're likely to end up disappointed," Barry advises. "One of the things I attempt to gauge initially is a person's level of stability. Although a generality, I've found that the more stabilizing factors present in someone's life - things such as being a student, or married with a family - the less likely the person will be to leave or do something to jeopardize his or her job."

Carbone places less emphasis on an applicant's bartending abilities.

"We've found that our most successful bartenders have engaging personalities and great attitudes. They entertain the guests, not with canned jokes or magic tricks, but by being outgoing and personable. I initially look for candidates who are confident, well-grounded, able to take direction and have a firm, dry handshake."

"One of the hiring techniques we employ is to never interview people the same day they drop off their application," DeMara says. "I want to see if they're motivated and organized enough to make an appointed interview. If they're not responsible enough to show up promptly for an interview, why would I presume they'll show up for their scheduled shifts on time?"

Interviewing skills are not inherent, but rather learned, experts say. Becoming adept at interviewing requires practice and good organizational skills. Using a prepared list of challenging and insightful questions permits an interviewer to focus and listen to a candidate's responses rather than being distracted about what to ask next.

Personal Traits

Gunderson suggests identifying the desirable characteristics of current staff members and then developing questions designed to reveal those attributes.

"It's important for an interviewer to ask challenging, open-ended questions that probe an applicant's weaknesses or limitations. Everyone has them; you just need to know what they are before you hire someone, not learn about them afterwards."

After a favorable first interview, DeMara recommends asking the applicant to go behind the bar, make a few drinks and open a bottle of wine.

"I'm not as interested in their drink-making abilities as I am in observing how the person moves behind the bar. You can also tell a great deal about a bartender's professionalism by watching him or her open a bottle of wine. This is sort of a practical way to verify experience."

Gauging a person's degree of honesty is essential, yet extremely difficult.

"The challenging aspect of hiring bartenders are the integrity issues," Gunderson says. "Bartenders handle both cash and product, so there's tremendous exposure to theft behind the bar."

How do you get a handle on someone's integrity? Carbone suggests asking a person to describe the best and worst experience he or she has had with a spotter. Gutin asks applicants if they have ever shoplifted, even as a kid. He says he wants to see how forthcoming the person is. He also recommends asking applicants if they've ever taken anything from their last job.

Two other integrity-based questions favored by experts include, "What would you do if you caught a fellow bartender stealing?" and "As a bartender, tell me what your definition of stealing is."

Remember, there's too much at stake to rush the hiring process, Barry says. "The success formula for this business depends on reducing costs, increasing sales and recruiting great people, with the emphasis on the latter."

By: Robert Plotkin