The hospitality industry is notoriously unfriendly for parents. Expectant mothers find that their physical stamina, already tested by their body’s changing needs, is challenged still further in an environment which required extensive stamina to begin with. New parents find that the needs of the business – the relentless late nights, the long days, the capacity for exhaustion – all mirror and directly conflict with the needs of a young baby. And then, later down the line, parents evenings and school plays are missed or attended by just one parent – the parent whose workplace allows rota requests, or works a more regular 9 to 5. It is no wonder that we see so many valuable workers leaving our industry at just the moment of experience and seniority when we need them most, or stepping away from their careers early in anticipation of their future life choices.
The challenges for them are obvious, and so is our industry’s dire need to retain skilled people – and to attract a new generation too, who should be safe in the knowledge that they can fulfil their ambition for a future which contains both a family and a meaningful, lasting progression in the field that they love. So why are we so bad at responding to this dual need? It is partly because there are challenges for employers too – at Countertalk we frequently hear concerns about expense and administration. A huge issue at the root of these concerns is one of the most damaging and most entrenched of our industry’s attitudes: “We’ve always done it this way”.
An openness to change is absolutely key – but so is being open-eyed about what that change should look like if it is to be realistic and impactful. Last year we asked you all a question: What would a really meaningful parental policy look likeAnd we were immensely proud and pleased to find that a handful of significant employers read your responses, took them on board and made those changes.

It’s ridiculous to talk about recruitment without talking about retention, because they’re the same thing. If no one leaves, you don’t need to recruit anybody. It’s the same topic.

Sam from Harts Group has a neat analogy: “You can turn on the taps in the bath, but if you haven’t got the plug in then you’re never going to get anywhere”. His Harts Group comprises a healthy handful of respected establishments ranging from the inimitable Quo Vadis, Barrafina and Parrilan, to the more casual El Pastor brand. The more sites you have the more positions you have to fill and, with 480 staff and growing, his 4% vacancy rate is notable – especially against the current 20% industry average. He emphasises: “it’s ridiculous to talk about recruitment without talking about retention, because they’re the same thing. If no one leaves, you don’t need to recruit anybody. It’s the same topic”.

Sam and his team saw the danger signs as Brexit hit. “It became very very obvious that there was an incoming staffing crisis”. They asked themselves, “how are we going to continue to grow, but also be able to staff the business with happy, motivated people? Only by investing in our focus on becoming best in class culturally”. The problems deepened for most businesses during Covid and, while Harts Group inevitably felt that too, their focus paid off – and they have the numbers to back it up. “Before Brexit our average retention was previously nine months. Where we are now, we’ve managed to double that to 18 months”.

What were the cultural changes put in place? “We’re always trying to review our benefits in this environment, because for a while it’s been so important for us to be seen as an employer of choice.” But there was one thing that Sam admits got overlooked: “Parental packages were actually something we hadn’t really thought about before”. For so many businesses it’s not so much an inflexibility of structure but an inflexibility of mindset that blocks progressive change – an unwillingness to accept that they need to think differently to progress. Understanding and acknowledging that there is a gap in your thinking is an enormous feat; Harts Group was one of the businesses who read and acted upon the Countertalk community’s advice, putting together an enhanced parental leave and benefits package with real impact based on those testimonials. He tells us “we now offer three months full pay, including Tronc – a big step up from the standard six weeks with no Tronc. And for paternity, it’s two weeks leave on full pay, as opposed to statutory, and another full week available to take within the first twelve months to bond with the baby.”

In the conversations around parental leave, paternity is something that is sometimes forgotten as an absolutely crucial element. The Countertalk community’s feedback flagged the importance of devising maternity and paternity packages which go hand-in-hand, noting “we won’t end the maternal penalty until we have ring-fenced paternity leave”. Sam confirms this: “We found that there had been dads going under our radar – people we didn’t even know were having a baby, because the statutory pay is so low that they didn’t want to take it, especially if the mum is off on statutory too. It becomes hand-to-mouth. It dawned on us that people weren’t taking time off because they couldn’t afford to”. The relief of feeling supported structurally and financially at this time of greatest need is hugely impactful, both practically and emotionally.

“Doing something more was culturally important to us. Morally we want to be a business that takes care of our people.” And what about those who say that they can’t afford to put in place such a generous policy? “From a more practical point of view, we want to be able to not only recruit the best but also retain the best in this very very competitive environment. There are such massive costs around retention. As a rule of thumb, new hires cost a business double for the first month, so to have them leave rapidly – that’s a huge cost too”. Retaining parents once they’ve had children is a huge part of that: “We’ve got lots of working parents. The nice thing about hospitality is that you do have that flexibility – you don’t have to be there nine to five, Monday to Friday. We have a head chef at Borough Yards who works for us on Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, because that’s what works for her with her childcare. We just work it out. If you have that attitude then there are loads of possibilities”.

Across all industries you will find resentment towards working parents working shorter hours, or easier shifts. The perpetual late nights and 80-hour weeks that are traditionally such a feature of working in hospitality make this even more of an issue. But the things that improve the lives of working parents are also the things that improve the lives of everyone in the company: “We try to guarantee that no-one works more than 50 hours a week, and we have systems in place to ensure that happens. If people do work more than that then we get flash notifications and we can immediately contact managers to find out what’s gone wrong, and how we can address the issue. We truly believe that it’s something that hospitality has to deal with. It’s not sustainable – one of the reasons that our industry has such high levels of burnout and the problems associated with that – mental health, substance abuse, you name it.” Once you remove the cultural expectation of those brutal hours, then no one is castigated for failing to match up to them. The policies that improve the lives of working parents have a huge cultural and personal impact for everyone in the team, and vice versa.

Sam acknowledges that the focus they put into the implementation and analysis of policies is easier for a larger team; “It’s not just one poor person having to do all this”. But there’s an acknowledgement too that, whatever size you are, a focus on the holistic wellbeing of your staff is something that can only benefit the business. Even small companies need to break out of the ‘bare minimum’ mindset and focus on something more sustainable and more long-term for the individual, for the company, and for our whole industryOnly when we all share this attitude will we truly put the plug firmly back into the bath – and keep the baby in with the bath water.

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