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Durham Leads the Way



Leadership in hospitality Recruitment, Development and Retention

In terms of quality and service, the UK hospitality industry has a lot of which to be proud. Away from our world class restaurants and hotels, however, there are many institutions which provide incredible food service and an outstanding work environment for employees. These can include prisons, care homes and educational facilities, establishments which often escape our attention. The 2017 People Awards will celebrate employers from across the hospitality sector – and there’s still time to enter. Entries close on July 2nd and who knows? Maybe your organisation could be celebrating at the Park Plaza, Westminster Bridge in October, much like Durham University Catering Department did last year.

Durham University Catering offers 26 Cafes across their colleges, employing 500 team members who serve around half a million meals per month to students, commercial guests and VIPs, including royalty from around the world. The pressure is on every day and the need for top talent is constant. Durham, however is not immune to sector-wide problems.

“In line with the industry skills shortage, in recent years, we struggled to fill all catering vacancies and attract sufficient dynamic, talented applicants,” explains Ricky Cohen, Deputy Director of Catering at Durham University. “Job descriptions and person specifications required fundamental review to ensure criteria were both appropriate for the operation and attractive to potential talent. Feedback also suggested that the existing written application and shortlisting process, followed by the very formal panel interview, deterred applicants.”

A rethink of the recruitment process was badly needed. It was felt that induction was disjointed from the actual recruitment process and focused almost entirely on getting new starters on the shop floor as quickly as possible.

“There was no attempt to acclimatise new starters to the university’s working environment or to help them understand the importance of their role and how it fits into the complex organisation that a university is.”

Induction also failed to set expectations nor did it communicate a purpose or strategy. It also didn’t provide new team members with the correct level of information needed to become engaged with the catering department.

It was decided to streamline the whole system. The catering team worked in collaboration with other key university stakeholders to develop a new, integrated recruitment, induction and development process. The department also had to combat a perception that working at Durham University Catering Department meant being ‘a dinner lady’, when nothing could be further from the truth. A departmental video was developed to provide visual insight into ‘what they actually do’. The video also helped applicants understand the department’s purpose, strategy and values before deciding whether to join the team.

In a controversial move, the written application shortlisting process for entry level vacancies was completely removed in order to increase the amount of talent at interview stage. No one had ever done this at the University and it was initially greeted with trepidation from certain sections.

The next bold step was to replace the formal panel style interview with a ‘speed dating’ style interview process, during which up to 42 applicants moved around mini management panels, where positive behaviour is scored using standard questions and a simple work related tasks. Again effective communication and various trials were required to convince key stakeholders of what they viewed as a radical approach.

Accordingly, job descriptions and personal specifications were developed with a reduced focus on qualifications and experience and a greater focus towards positive behavioural indicators. This was linked directly to Durham University’s behavioural framework, which they named ‘Realising Your Potential’. Ricky Cohen said, “The ‘Realising Your Potential’ approach is essentially a framework which helps clarify the behaviours required to enable all team members to do just that – realise their own potential; it’s simple, when individuals realise their own capabilities, the whole department benefits.”

Developing talent is also crucial to Durham’s new structure. “We continually try to be creative to attract, support, develop and retain talent, including financially supporting chef secondments to Michelin Star and award-winning establishments, for example at Le Manoir aux QuatSaisons,” explains Ricky Cohen. “The long-term plan is to formalise this into development partnerships where individuals get the benefit of improving their skills. In return, the business gets free labour. We also recently delivered an international food exploration trip to Teikyo University, Tokyo.”

With all this hard and innovative work, it may come as no surprise that Durham University Catering Department won the 2016 People Award for Leadership in Recruitment, Retention and Development. Ricky Cohen said that the department was thrilled with their success, “Our current and future success rests with our team of individuals who are talented, engaged and trained to deliver excellence. National recognition has given us confidence to continue to be creative with recruitment, retention and development.”

Entering the 2017 People Awards couldn’t be easier. There are 13 categories. It’s free and you can enter as many categories as you wish. Entries close on 2nd July 2017 and the shortlist will be announced in August. The glamorous awards ceremony will take place on 5th October 2017 at the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge.