By Paul Bergeron
There are plenty of unique challenges when trying to recruit and retain hourly employees in high-turnover industries, such as retail, food service and convenience stores. In fact, turnover last year for full-time convenience store sales associates was 130 percent—and 152 percent for part-timers, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores’ State of the Industry Compensation Report, released in March.
Given round-the-clock work schedules, child and elder care issues, and other hurdles to attaining work/life balance, creating a strong, sustainable company culture is critical to finding and keeping reliable employees, industry experts say.
“Great, quality places are people-focused, flexible, adaptable, collaborative and inclusive. They are about creating places that people love while recognizing that sustainability is an ongoing and iterative process,” said Kristen Magni, founder and principal consultant at C Future LLC in Olney, Md. As a result, research shows that companies that focus on being high-quality workplaces have much lower attrition than those that don’t.
“It’s important to be proactive rather than reactive turnover is a lagging indicator,” she said.
For many hourly employees, working in these industries is simply a first job or a means to earn money while in school. But for others, it’s the paycheck that feeds them and their families, Magni noted.
“It might be the only option for work that is accessible for many reasons, while for others, it’s a career choice,” she said. “A great work environment with growth and earning potential can result in [employees] seeing the opportunity to pursue a career, which is a long-term perspective, versus a short-term perspective of working for a paycheck. It’s a shift in mindset that results in behavioral changes.”
At Sheetz, a convenience retailer that sells gasoline and food in six states, the HR department focuses on creating a one-of-a-kind, positive work atmosphere, said Stephanie Doliveira, the company’s executive vice president of people and culture. Founded in 1952 in Altoona, Pa., Sheetz now employs more than 25,000 people. The family-owned and -operated company plans to expand its 675-store portfolio to 1,000 stores by 2028, Doliveira said. With aggressive growth on the horizon and innovation as a key component of its business model, Sheetz knows that building an appealing company culture is critical.
“You have to be intentional about creating a great place to work,” Doliveira said in a recent presentation at the LEAP HR: Retail conference in Nashville, Tenn. “Given the nature of our business, operating 24/7/365, you simply can’t send out an all-staff e-mail or call for a team meeting to create connection and drive engagement. It requires intentionality and action.”
She explained how Sheetz is competing for talent in its sector by providing day care for employees’ dependents, improved paid leave, employee recognition events and associate stock ownership. The company also puts “inclusion” at the front of its inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility initiative, known as IDEA.
Maintaining a strong culture of care for employees is a vital component of Sheetz’s success to date, Doliveira added, explaining that the company’s core values start with respect at the heart of all business strategy and interactions, followed by the ideals of being connected, real, high-energy, driven to win, pioneering and dependable. Sheetz looks for these values in every employee it hires, and as a result, it has been named by Fortune as a Great Place to Work eight times, she said.
Sheetz isn’t alone in creating a company culture that focuses on developing effective employee relations. At the Atlanta-based RaceTrac convenience store chain, “[o]ur teams bring this to life in several ways every day by engaging our associates outside of day-to-day with communication and learning,” said Jennifer Ramey, executive director of field HR and learning.
The company’s quarterly, in-person general manager meetings combine culture, team building, leadership development and operations training led by regional operations and HR teams in each of its seven regions, Ramey said. There can be 60 to 95 supervisory-level managers in attendance at each gathering.
“These events leave the teams energized, engaged and aligned on company priorities,” she said. “We empower the general managers to celebrate their teams and personalize recognition, whether for high school graduations, birthdays or anniversaries. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Regional leaders also host regular advisory councils—considered to be listening sessions—where team members are invited to share feedback and ideas on culture, areas of improvement and more, Ramey said.
Supporting and Celebrating Employees
In-person events for employees who work in retail, convenience and fast-food environments help create a strong culture. For example, SheetzFEST is an annual, all-expenses-paid celebration that recognizes employees from across the company in five-year increments, starting with their fifth anniversary. Those who reach 25 years of service are inducted into the Canopy Club and receive an extra night of celebration.
“These events show that we truly are a family and we care for one another,” Doliveira said during the LEAP HR: Retail conference.
Other policies and procedures have been put in place to help with employee retention. In 2020, with a global pandemic soaring, Sheetz recognized the financial hardships facing many of its employees. It established the Share the Love Employee Fund for employees needing financial assistance. Nearly 500 employees have used more than $864,000 from the fund, she said.
Ensuring that all employees feel recognized is a top priority, Doliveira explained. Employees are eligible for quarterly bonuses and an employee stock ownership plan. As a result, nearly 8 percent of the company is owned by employees.
Sheetz also holds an annual “Week of Thankz,” during which top executives and management show solidarity with front-line workers and are assigned to stores to help with tasks such as cleaning bathrooms, sweeping exterior areas and stocking shelves. In 2022, nearly 300 upper-level personnel signed up to help.
“It’s no secret that our store team members are the foundation of our company,” said John Campbell, assistant vice president of store operations at Sheetz. “They go above and beyond every day for our customers. The Week of Thankz is just one small way we’re able to show how much we appreciate them and recognize the hard work they do—that we have each other’s backs.”
Sheetz leaders also seek out and act on employee feedback. For example, when employees reported difficulty juggling work and caring for newborns, Sheetz changed its leave policy to provide 12 weeks of paid leave for new mothers at 100 percent pay; previously, it was 12 weeks with 70 percent pay.
For employees with small children, Sheetz provides an early-learning day care center called “Little Sproutz” at its company headquarters in Claysburg, Pa., in partnership with child care company Bright Horizons. It’s open to all employees’ children and grandchildren, and scholarships are available for income-eligible employees for preschool-age children.
Give Employees a Good First-Job Experience
Given widespread talent shortages, many food service companies have resigned to hiring almost anyone who applies. But that’s an approach that rarely pays off, said Nate Hybl, CEO and founder of Gusto!, a fast-casual restaurant chain based in Atlanta.
“At Gusto!, we are uncompromising in our hiring process,” said Hybl. “For us, our values in action act as a magnet, attracting the right type of human being and pushing away those applicants that wouldn’t be a good cultural fit. No matter what a company does for its employees, it all goes out the window if your co-workers don’t share the same values.”
Hybl said the company publicizes its values, including “Be a Pro,” “Serve One Another,” “Lead with Grace” and “Quality over Quantity,” which help promote its purpose-driven brand. He prioritizes work/life balance by, among other things, rarely scheduling closing and opening shifts back-to-back for employees. In addition, the company provides up to $2,600 worth of employee meals per year; shift leaders and managers are eligible for health benefits after 60 days; all other team members are eligible after 12 months; and the average hourly rate for all team members with tips included is $15 to $16 per hour, compared with the $11.96 average in Georgia.
Gusto! also conducts listening sessions—one-on-one meetings twice a year with employees and team members. “These sessions are used to improve leadership and shop operations by soliciting feedback rather than just giving it,” Hybl said. They also create opportunities for career development—for those who want it—so that associates have a path to becoming operating partners.
Making sure new employees understand a company’s culture and being committed to their career advancement are critical in any industry that focuses on hiring hourly employees, Magni said. “This should really be standard practice for all employees regardless of where they are in their career trajectory, but it’s particularly impactful for first-timers,” she said.
“We don’t remember everything in life, but we do tend to remember our very first job, which often shapes our view of the world of work,” Magni explained. “The experience impacts our perception of what we want or don’t want in a job, a boss, co-workers and a work environment. If the experience is traumatic, that trauma will remain embedded in our brain until an experience comes along to counter it.”
Magni recognizes there are many negative stereotypes about working in food service, so the industry needs to address the stigma to attract talent.
“There are a lot of great companies in this space that offer incredible benefits and career opportunities with significant earning potential and, in some cases, ownership opportunities,” she said. “We don’t hear about this enough. In many places, the neighborhood doughnut shop or burger joint is a family affair, an important part of the community and, in some cases, owned and operated by someone who is part of the community. This should be promoted more, because they are vital to the economy in that community.”