Dec 122012

Just when I think I have wagged every finger about every bad decision and misconception someone comes along to remind me that there are more out there.

An acquaintance assures me that if I just meet his friend, who has been the manager of a café with lackluster reviews for the past five years, that I will see her potential and find her the back door to a better job and a better future.

I assure him that I cannot. I am in fact nothing but the extension of my clients’ desires and needs, and the fact is that my clients do not want someone with potential rather than  a proven history of activity in their segment of the industry – whether that is fine dining or high volume chain operation or bakery quality control. In other words, they don’t want someone who thinks or knows they can do it. They want someone who has done it.

My friend’s friend would, I believe, be very  happy to “take a step back” and use her skills in a better environment but at a lower position. Again, this is something I cannot do. My clients, on the whole, want someone who is working their way up not in quality but in title, not someone who has reached a higher goal in some other branch of the industry.

There are some rules to getting to where you are going. I have written them in different form before, but let’s make them clear.

1)      You have more options early in your career than you do once you have set a path.

2)      You choose the kind of place you want to work in at the start or, let me say it again, early. If you want to be in high end dining or high paying volume quality restaurants, that’s where you need to take your first jobs. You need to stay in that environment.

3)      You can’t throw in  your lot with a corner café and expect to be taken on, even as a server, in a Michelin restaurant. It doesn’t work that way.

4)      If you are trying to ratchet up your career,  few recruiters will be interested in you, as they will have to make a “sale” to a client of a product (that commodity would be you) they cannot really trust, since you have no history in the area to which  you aspire. ). I have learned the hard way that this brings grief to me and generally to both employer and employee. I suspect that most recruiters will agree.

5)      Exception: If you are very young and want to work your way up from a pretty subordinate job, you have a fair chance. Recruiters don’t figure into the algorithm, but they don’t need to.  Everyone loves puppies and is willing to train them more than they love and are willing to train unknown older dogs. There may be some begging involved, but it has been done.

6)      Employers generally want someone “on the way up”, not someone who has been up and is trying the catch him or herself on the way down then turn around.

7)      Where you start your career geographically is also important.

8)      Leaving a more desirable segment of the industry often means you will not be able to return.

To you this means? Obviously early choices are very important. That the biblical concept of “straight and narrow” also counts in restaurants. Why?

The pervasive rigor necessary in all high end properties can’t just be picked up – it has to be in muscle memory.  Employers suspect, generally correctly, that someone in a more casual or smaller environment than theirs will not have developed the habits and  “moves  required to fit in with the flow or their kitchen or dining room.

The good news is, as usual, that the culinary industry is a field where rules and generalizations apply, but only mostly. There are not a lot of exceptions but enough of them to make it worthwhile trying to get into a better niche. (Assuming that you think it is better. There are a lot of high end chefs and managers who back out to  open that neighborhood cafe and live happily ever after.)

People do transcend barriers between job types from time to time, so there’s no reason not to put a little effort into it.  I’ve even done it successfully a couple of times (but more times extremely unsuccessfully).  Those with a gift, a great temperament can and do manage to change their trajectory, but the effort will be yours. Go Craigslist, Monster, back door hopping. You can’t expect a recruiter to work for you (Remember – we work for the client) Nobody else can retool your career. It’s not their job. You are the beneficiary, so you need to do the work.

Given that, the obvious best strategy is starting out in the industry neighborhood where you want to end up.

Good Luck to you.

Oct 092010

Despite the officially declared recovery I still see a lot more fired or laid off applicants than I did two years ago.  A five star hotel was sold to a company which has no need for a top chef,  a chef arrives in the morning to find the doors closed, a manager finally states her mind about changing policies and is terminated, the company simply no longer can afford the chef’s salary and replaces her with a lower paid subordinate, the new Club President decided it’s time for a change.

What if this happens to you? What do you do, after the initial shock has worn off?

Everyone’s situation is different, but there are some steps you should take.

First, be practical. Request severance pay. You may not get it, but there’s no harm in asking.

File for unemployment. It won’t be a lot, but you can use it to tide you over while you look. Employers don’t like to pay it, and if they can prove that you were terminated for good cause they will not have to.  It is called “unemployment insurance” rather than unemployment entitlement for a reason: You have been paying into the fund for all the  years you worked. If you are offered severance pay instead, do a little math to decide what you want.

Request any compensation still owed you immediately.  California has a law prohibiting  to “Suffer work to be done without compensation.” The law requires that you be paid at the time of termination or within a few days of your own resignation.  You should not wait, and you won’t have to unless the restaurant’s finances are not in order.

If your employer says he cannot pay you now and asks you to wait, you should not.  You are, unfortunately, in a race with other creditors including the government for a finite amount of money. Explain that your pay is due on termination, and you would regret having to go to the Labor Board (which will bring possible fines, so it may have an effect.)  You can try to negotiate a post dated check. Don’t deposit it until you call the bank to which it is issued to ask if there are sufficient funds in the account. Make a copy of the check as proof before you send it in.  If the check bounces, you may be able to place a claim with your local District Attorney’s office. While your pay is a civil matter, a bounced check is a criminal issue.

If you can’t get you back pay, go to the Labor Board. Don’t wait. Time is important.  Most states provide that employees get paid before purveyors and service providers, so if the restaurant is in distress they will be pushing hard to get what’s owed them. To the owner of a failing business needs them and not you, so you need someone on your side.  If vendors or service providers are able to get payment before you, you will see less. I am not a fan of the Labor Board, but this is where they serve a purpose.  You want to be compensated before bankruptcy is declared, before vendors are paid, and before the Federal and State governments claim back taxes.

Don’t give up if the business closes. Just because a business shuts down doesn’t mean that there are no funds to pay  you.  Do not, furthermore, be intimidated into not pursuing what is owed you on grounds that it would be the final straw for a business on the way down. If things are that far along,  your pay won’t make much difference.

Civil claims against employers  have increased tenfold in the past three years, which doesn’t make them a good idea. There are a plenty of attorneys willing to take on wrongful termination cases on a contingency basis, but if you do make a claim,  you had better win, and you will receive less money than the attorney.  Even if you do win, appeals can stretch the case out for months or years, and winning is improbable. Contrary to Labor Board claims, litigation leaves a public record. Few employers hire litigants willingly.

Unless the business is in danger of closing, do not prompt your staff to show solidarity by walking out when you are gone. For one thing, the restaurant is going to be in your history as long as you work, and there’s not much benefit in making them angry. For another, your staff needs the jobs.

If you are referred to an agency which quizzes you on the business’s labor practices or if the Labor Board asks you a list of questions think twice before you try to get even with the employer by complaining about missed breaks or shift pay.  The agency wants to hold the business accountable, but any fines they levy on the restaurants will come out of a finite pool of money, reducing what is available for you. You want the business to do well enough to pay you.

You may be asked to sign a document stating that you left of  your own accord, in return for which, the employer promises a good reference.  Think twice. If you were not terminated for seriously poor conduct, the employer would have to give a fair reference anyway.  If you were terminated for cause, you will not be eligible for unemployment, but you still won’t have any real assurance that the employer will provide a good reference.

Get your insurance in order.  If you have a pre existing condition, you have sixty days to apply for COBRA insurance.  It tends to be expensive. San Francisco residents have access to the City’s insurance, which is not great, but will keep you safe if your appendix acts up.  Some employers are willing to extend insurance even if they terminate the employee.

Line up references. Your company may have a no-reference policy, but people who are no longer with the company usually do not adhere to it.  Friends in the company may also be willing to give references. Line up references from previous employers and subordinates, as well.

Don’t beat  yourself up. People who really should get fired rarely do. Termination happens, and if you messed royally, don’t do it again.   You’re in pretty good company. Remember Nixon? Forced to resign in infamy and then rose to glory? You’ve learned something, and it won’t happen again.

Don’t panic – you will find something else. While it’s a good idea to start to look for a job  as soon as possible, cut yourself a little slack. You probably haven’t had free time for quite a while.  Enjoy it.

Strategize your job search.  Remember that you are looking for a suitable job, not “just any” job, because “just any” jobs have a tendency not to last. Dust off your resume and update it.  Decide what you really want to do and what your boundaries are.

Review your finances and prepare to budget.  You can’t count on finding your next position in a week or two, so decide how  you can stretch your available cash and income for as long as it takes to find a suitable position. The longer you can look, the more freedom you have to turn things down, and having a little cash flow extends your search options.  Offer to do relief work for friends, take short term positions, cater, whatever.  Filler jobs don’t have to be at your level.   Any work is good for driving away the demons that come if you just mope, and you will be in the loop, which  makes finding new positions easier.

Be realistic.  The market has probably changed since you took your last job. I’d say that compensation is down +10% across the board, sometimes more. Culinary focus has shifted from fancy to casual. Be selective in accepting a job, but don’t hold out for fantasy jobs and culinary styles.

Be honest with yourself about what didn’t work at the last position. That’s not easy. I never believe anyone who says, “I have no idea why I was fired.” Sure you do.  Figure out what you learned from it, even if that’s simply that you made a bad choice taking the job.

This is a poor time to drink a lot, no matter how tempting it is. Your career needs you to have a clear mind now.  If you were drinking a lot before you got fired, you might figure out that that’s probably part of the reason. Your call.

It’s better to be on good terms with your ex employers than to have them resent you. You’re going to be running into them and the people there now and then in your future. If someone is not paying you, that won’t be an option, but leaving friends behind always helps in a job search.  Apologize if possible. Thank them for giving you a chance, if you can.  Some employers try hard to help employees they can no longer afford find new jobs.

Have some fun. See friends, get exercise, keep healthy and get enough sleep.   This is not advice from your mother. It will make you interview better.

Keep an open mind and a wide window about opportunities that arise.

Things don’t necessarily happen for the best, but they generally work out.