Penelope Wong, Executive Chef of Glenmoor CC, has successfully built a team of hard-working individuals from all walks of life who are proud of the work they do and the product they put out.
We’ve all heard it. We’ve all experienced it. We’re all still dealing with it. Recruiting and staffing woes are omnipresent. The labor force—or lack thereof—is now a widespread epidemic within our industry. In the Denver area, the labor force is being thwarted by applicants who are more interested in posting Snapchat photos of their ‘wake and bake’ rituals rather than putting half the amount of effort into performing at their jobs.
To save from completely transforming and simplifying my operations to adapt to the lesser standards of this new workforce, I’ve resorted to hiring from a labor pool most shy away from: ex-felons. Perhaps it can be viewed as our community give back program. After all, ex-felons need to make a living, too. Make no mistake, I treat every applicant/interviewee with the same level of respect and fairness. If it is noted on the initial application that there is a conviction against the applicant, I give them the opportunity to share this information with me. Surprisingly, most volunteer the information. It’s this kind of honesty I appreciate and it is what persuades me to give them the opportunity most deserve.
During this last summer season, I had a total of seven ex-felons on either parole or probation on my team. Only two of them are no longer with me. One moved on, as he was given an opportunity to be a lead line cook at another establishment and the other unfortunately could not steer clear of trouble to maintain his probation status. In all fairness, statistically speaking, we couldn’t expect a 100% success rate. On the other hand, one of my cooks has progressed through four promotions now and is well on his way into future management consideration. Another has progressed through two promotions in just the six months that he’s been with me.
Each one of my employees who are on probation or parole has been very transparent with the mistakes they have made in their lives. They are also all sincerely grateful for the opportunity given to them to better their situation. One of my cooks was given an opportunity even though he had very little experience needed to qualify him for the position available. It was his overall attitude and eagerness to learn and move on from the mistakes he had made in his life that earned him the opportunity. Upon being offered a position, his gratitude took precedence and his motivation set him apart from even some of my long-tenured staff. His drive and his focus allowed him to learn his station (a very difficult one, especially for one with so little experience) and become more than efficient in a very short time. After only six months, his attitude is still as positive and he accepts challenges as well as he did on day one. His priorities are clear when he gets to work—maintain standards, quality and consistency. And he does it with the best attitude a Chef could ask for. It has been truly amazing watching this individual’s passion for this industry and our craft grow as quickly as his skill level has. I believe he has found his calling. He couldn’t be more any more enthusiastic about coming to work every day in the grueling conditions our work environment tends to offer.
I believe I’ve shared this sentiment before, but my initial perception upon hiring from this labor pool came from the thought that applicants from this labor pool would (hopefully) be loyal employees as many of them maintain a strict schedule monitored by their parole officers. My experience in working with these individuals has taught me that serving a probation or parole sentence includes a certain curfew which allows for the individual to go to work, and then return home. I am also aware that being on parole or probation comes with a significant fine to be paid. The strict guidelines enforced on those who are on probation and/or parole leaves very little room to F* up. Fortunately for me, these strict guidelines have left me with loyal employees who are truly trying to better their lives and create a future for themselves.
One might wonder if there are increased risks in hiring from this labor pool. I could easily answer yes and no. I believe there are risks in hiring anyone from any labor pool. For example, I had one new hire over this last season that did not come with a checkered past. He did not have to check in with any probation/parole officer. He did not have to go in for regular UA’s. He was just a young man who moved from out of state with plans for continuing his college education to gain a master’s degree. After only one week of employment, this individual had to be reprimanded because of an altercation with a co-worker that very easily would have turned physical had management not stepped in. One week later, this same individual was ultimately let go for having yet another near physical (and violent) altercation with another co-worker.
Amongst my team of ex-felons, the range of past mistakes vary from drug abuse to DUI’s to auto theft. I can’t speak about hiring ex-felons who have committed more serious crimes. Perhaps I’ve just been lucky enough to be able to choose from individuals who I have found to be genuinely decent human beings who have made mistakes in the pasts. I’ve only had one instance in which I was interviewing an applicant who was very upfront with me regarding his status on the state’s watch list due to his involvement in an online sting operation regarding small children. To be blunt, I was rather grateful that this candidate was overqualified for the position I was trying to fill.
What I am suggesting is certainly not a solution to our industry’s current staffing woes. If there was just one answer, I wish I had it. I am only sharing what has been a viable alternative for me in getting my kitchens staffed efficiently and effectively. In the end, my team is made up of a mix of individuals who have proven to be productive, forward-moving, consistent, hard-working, eager to learn, eager to grow and, above all, loyal. In this time of staffing woes, I have successfully built a strong foundation of individuals who are here to work and have become very proud of the work they do and the product they put out.