The Great Resignation: How two chicken restaurants illustrate the need for cultural change

The Great Resignation has been a hot topic lately. Perhaps its impact has more to do with your leadership than you realize.

quitting

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The impacts of the Great Resignation, an unprecedented uptick in people switching and leaving jobs, has been felt by everyone from leaders trying to retain a key manager, to people going out to eat and finding their favorite restaurant closed due to a staff shortage. The latest job numbers from the U.S. Department of Labor show more unfilled positions than active job seekers, creating a strange imbalance in a labor market already thrown into disarray by everything from COVID to government policy.

SEE: Juggling remote work with kids' education is a mammoth task. Here's how employers can help (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The chicken experiment

I've speculated that if nothing else, the great resignation is going to dramatically demonstrate which organizations have a great culture and good leadership and which don't through the simple metric of whether employees stick around. I began to see some of this over the summer, as some restaurants and small businesses seemed to stay fully staffed, and others reduced hours or services due to lack of staff. Presumably, if employees become a scarce resource, they're going to gravitate to the organizations that treat them well.

The most dramatic example of this dichotomy is the case of two fast-food chicken restaurants in my town, both on the same stretch of road about a quarter mile from each other. Both offer a similar assortment of fried chicken, both offer drive-through and dine-in options, and judging from the help wanted posters on the door, both provide similar pay and benefits. Both are also part of national chains that target a similar customer segment and are recognized and well-established brands.

SEE: Great Resignation hits IT departments and companies are switching strategies (TechRepublic) 

However, one establishment has remained consistently busy and appears to be appropriately or slightly understaffed, while the other featured a message on the road-facing signboard announcing "Closed due to no employees" for the past several days. I can't think of many other situations where observable variables (type of work, nature of customers, etc.) were so similar, yet the outcome in terms of staff retention is so different.

If two nearly identical organizations, making the same product and serving the same customer segment have such different outcomes, culture and leadership likely play a huge role. Superficially, this is borne out by my shopping at these two establishments. At the one that's retained its staff, employees always seemed polite, focused and intent on executing their jobs well. At the other closed restaurant, my experiences were usually less positive, with listless and unhurried employees that seemed to be just going through the motions.

Intriguingly, the restaurant that retained its staff seems to hold them to higher standards while simultaneously creating a positive working environment, as the staff always seemed happier. This is despite the fact that both restaurants have employees who came from similar demographics by all outward appearances.

Engaging on engagement

Culture and happiness might seem like difficult metrics to observe and measure, and if it were as simple as adding a nicer breakroom or putting some inspirational posters on the wall, leaders wouldn't have to worry about how the great resignation might impact them. Perhaps the easiest observable measure is engagement, and if you don't believe that you can readily measure engagement through observation, you've already identified your first cultural problem and risk.

SEE: What's the fix for the Great Resignation? Hire generalists and train them (TechRepublic) 

If you're unable to observe how engaged your employees are in their work, try a few simple conversations. Ask whether they're doing work that's appropriately challenging, meaningful and keeps them excited to come to work in the morning, and you'll quickly get a read on how engaged your employees are. Simple questions like "Tell me about the project you're working on about which you're most excited" will light up the eyes of an engaged employee, while someone who has already mentally resigned might provide little more than a blank stare and a half-hearted and disjointed list of random tasks they perform.

If your employees are engaged and active, the great recession might be little more than an interesting online article or two. If they're not engaged, beware as this is a dire warning sign that there's a more extensive set of issues that have already caused your employees to mentally resign and the only thing remaining is the physical act of walking out the door. Spending the time to get a pulse on the engagement of your teams might give you enough time to avoid the equivalent of rolling out a "Closed due to lack of staff" signboard on the door of your shop.  

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By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...