The Five Worst Restaurant Employees (And How You Can Help Them!)

As you forecast for the new year, you inevitably set goals and expectations for what you want to achieve. No matter your business, you're only as successful as those on your team backing your efforts. Nowhere is this more evident than within the restaurant industry. 

With restaurant employee turnover acting as an ever-present concern, many operators struggle to know how to keep quality employees on board without wasting time on those who aren't. While you can't predict everything, our list should help you identify the absolute worst kinds of employees to have in your operation, how to help redirect them, and when to end the heartache and cut them off. 

The Corner Cutter, AKA, 'Where’s the Shortcut?'

As the name implies, these employees seek shortcuts and workarounds in all their tasks. Maybe they're not as diligent in wiping down the burners when they should. Perhaps they skip a few steps in a recipe process when you're not around. 

The unifying factor here is that corner cutters create problems for your team by skipping vital steps in the workflow. As a result, they're more prone to mishaps and accidents, like cross-contaminating food — a nightmare for an operator. Corner-cutters might cook slipshod and inconsistent food, which creates a bad experience for customers. Remember that most things don't come quickly or easily, and this includes restaurant success. Those who seek a "quick fix" for everything don't have the same long-term goals as you. Note: there's a difference between those who take lazy shortcuts and those who choose to work smart, not hard. In many cases, restaurant technology can help remove unnecessary steps in your workflow and make you more efficient.

How You Can Help Them

Before rushing to any conclusions, examine your own documented processes. Is it possible that the employee isn't deliberately taking shortcuts, but doesn't understand the instructions? Ensure that all your procedures, including company conduct, are clearly outlined. If you're finding that many of your employees are struggling to perform them correctly, perhaps you should retool them. Ensure also that they understand the purpose of your processes. For example, an employee may not see the need to go through such an extensive cleaning process each night. Perhaps if they understood the risk of foodborne illnesses and accidents, they'd be motivated to be more thorough. Employ the Van Halen "M&M's principle." You can't create any big-picture success if your small-picture processes aren't in order.

When to Move On

If a redirection isn't sufficient, and you find you still have an employee who's not dotting the I's and crossing the T's, it may be time to part ways with them. Laziness is a scourge, and besides productivity, it opens your restaurant up to injuries, lawsuits, and complaints for which you don't have time. Get a team that follows all the steps every time and will give you less stress

The Insubordinate, AKA 'I'm Not Going to Do That.'

Management should never be a power trip, and you're not there to lord authority over anyone. However, there are times when it's necessary for a manager to give direction to those within their jurisdiction, and to know that they'll carry it out without issue. The insubordinate can take two forms: those who outright refuse to follow instructions, and those who balk and push back against the direction. 

Now, a little pushback isn't necessarily a bad thing. Your employees will have good ideas, and it's valuable to listen to them. The best managers are willing to take feedback from all areas, not just those within the same occupational circle. Insubordination becomes a problem when employees disregard directions that were designed to protect them or the company. For example, let's say you've outlined a specific protocol as it regards operating and maintaining hot oil on a stove, and an employee decides to sidestep it. No amount of "I told you so" will absolve the nasty situation that will create.

You might also have employees who begrudgingly follow direction, but who will publicly push back on everything you suggest. Your employees need to know your expectations. Still, if you've got one who seems to have a problem with everything you suggest, it very well could be them and not the actual tasks at hand that are the problem. And worse? Insubordinate employees can also demotivate other employees around them to take their same inactive approach. 

How You Can Help

As always, ensure your directions are clear. If employees can't understand a procedure, they might not follow it with exactness. Check to ensure they've internalized it, literally going through the process with them if need be. 

When to Move On

Give these employees some time to redirect, but don't let it go on forever. Insubordination represents willful negligence, and if you find an employee who refuses to take direction, they're a liability to you and your restaurant. You cannot redirect those who don't want to. 

The Toxic Gossiper, AKA 'I Just 'Tell it Like it Is.'

Risks abound in the kitchen like sharp objects, hot stoves, slick surfaces, and the risk of bacteria. Relative to everything else, a work environment may not be the most enjoyable place to be, but it needn't be unpleasant or dangerous, and you take action to prevent that. There are also more metaphorical risks that can prove just as detrimental to your staff: bad attitudes.

It's hard to pinpoint one specific type of bad attitude. You know the types: surly employees who can't seem to avoid conflict, employees who use work as an opportunity to vent and gossip, and those perennial rainclouds who suck the fun and charisma out of any room entered. Sure, these types have become requisite "characters" in many a televised office drama, but their actions aren't benign, and we don't need them in real life! It's not uncommon to hear these folks and the environment they create, described as "toxic."

As such, they "contaminate" other members of your staff. They dampen the mood. They create feelings of mistrust and hostility and might cause some of your team to abandon your restaurant for a more pleasant one. 

What You Can Do

Everyone sees the world differently, but many operators prefer to believe that people aren't inherently grumpy. Before taking any constructive approach, you might try asking these employees how things are going in their personal life. You don't need extensive details or to pry beyond what they tell you, but in some cases, a sour attitude might be the symptom of something beyond the workplace. The employee might be facing stresses and obstacles prevent a positive face at work. In these cases, you can help them with a sympathetic ear. By merely saying, "Is everything ok? I'm sensing some tension here," you can help them feel heard. 

You might also have an employee who doesn't know how they're coming across. If you were to gently say that their attitude might be causing some contention, and if they're willing to adjust, you could work from there. It's much easier to work through these things when the issue is brought out into the open.

When to Move On

Everyone has a bad day, and a frantic restaurant shift can bring the absolute worst out in people. This article isn't about those moments. The problem exists when an employee refuses to adjust the negativity, or worse yet, cannot even see it. You will never be able to turn the tide on an employee who's determined to be unhappy, and you risk them pushing other employees out with it. Don't keep an employee around who makes work hellish for those around them. 

The Unreliable, AKA 'Don't Count on Me!'

They do call it a "chain of command," and yours is only as strong as your least reliable employee. You've likely got a shortlist of those staff members you can count on, who will always come through for you in a clutch. You might also have those staff members who are a little less reliable and who you hesitate endowing with too much responsibility. 

Unreliable employees will frequently call out of work with little to no advanced notice; they might even utilize the dreaded "no call/no show." These employees put you and the team in a lurch, causing you to scramble and account for their deficit. These employees might also be unreliable in their conduct, shirking primary responsibilities when asked.

Guests want a consistent dining experience, one without surprises or hassles. Restaurant work is exceptionally inconsistent, though, and fraught with many factors that affect the work. For this reason, you need reliable staff who can be counted on to do what you ask and who can adapt to an environment that changes quickly. 

What You Can Do

Sometimes external circumstances prevent an employee from being wholly reliable, and you should be sensitive to these. Things like transportation issues, health problems, or other obstacles aren't always their fault. If you suspect this is the case, the best thing you can do is enact transparency with your staff and ask them. If you can determine some of these outside issues, you can better measure your expectations going forward.

You might also find that an employee isn't trying to avoid accountability but might be squeamish about accepting new responsibilities for which they don't feel prepared. In these cases, you can use the experience to teach and build them up constructively. 

As in most cases, if people understand the purpose of what you're asking them, they feel more invested. When unreliable staff members understand the burden they create, it can motivate them to change.

When to Move On

While you want the best for your staff, you cannot be their perennial cheerleader. At some point, self-motivation and personal accountability are needed to excel — not just in your restaurant, but in their lives generally. 

An unreliable employee, one who doesn't treat their work with any sense of urgency and who refuses to reprioritize, isn't worth keeping on staff for very long, and there's only so much you can do to help them. They may not be invested in the job, and if that's the case, set them on the journey to find one in which they are.

The Know-it-All, AKA 'You Can't Tell Me, I Already Know!'

You can't expect perfection from your employees, just as they shouldn't expect it from you. We're all bound to make mistakes or fall short of our goals at times. Furthermore, folks don't just walk into restaurant work fully prepared. They've got to learn, and you could be dealing with people who're just starting their lives as working professionals. This article isn't to suggest that you should cut off employees who have some of these habits. Frankly, you should expect these and see them as opportunities for growth.

The know-it-all proves an exception to this. Know-it-alls are often intelligent. They may have good ideas, loads of experience, and might mean well. The problem is that when you have an employee convinced that they already know everything, they'll eventually prove they don't or won't adjust their behavior when this time comes. 

Know-It-All employees will often stake their value upon having lots of knowledge. This feature alone is excellent on paper, but a head full of facts without action does little to prove mettle in the kitchen. There's a know-it-all attitude that corresponds here too. You know it, you've seen it. It's that attitude someone has that says, "I'm not listening to you; I'm just waiting for my next opportunity to speak." Or the ones who always have an excuse when you offer any corrections. They're more than an annoyance. If you have a seasoned employee with lots of experience and knowledge, that's a good thing! However, employees are dangerous to your operation when they become unteachable. That sense of expertise can enable this. These employees can often take criticism personally and interpret it as a personal slight against their abilities. They become defensive and fight you, rather than seek to solve the problem.

What You Can Do

In many cases, "know-it-all" attitudes stem from insecurity. Perhaps this employee is trying to prove some value to your operation and is using their job knowledge to "show" you that they're more crucial than other employees. In these cases, you might help reframe your expectations with them. Let them know that you don't expect perfection, just that your employees are willing to adapt. A frank discussion might set them at ease and curb the unpleasant boasting.

You might also find that they feel unchallenged in their current role, that they've hit a wall, and are trying (however ineffectively) to tell you they're ready for more responsibility. You can turn these experiences into something positive that gives the employee new initiative and hunger to learn more.

When to Move On

If you find that an employee is still projecting a condescending, "you can't teach me anything I don't already know," attitude despite your interventions, let them go. They likely need to be in an environment that challenges them differently. No matter how long someone has been in a role, there are always places to improve, and fundamentals to sharpen. If your employees don't see this, you'll have a hard time weathering changes in the future.

It can be challenging to let go of employees — even bad ones! It's disruptive and unpleasant.  Building a strong and reliable restaurant staff takes time and planning. By looking at the bigger picture, though, especially your goals, you can better see the employees who are helping you get there, and those who are holding you back.