In the past, the words "hospitality" and "best places to work" haven't been natural bedfellows. But by launching the 2008 Best Places to Work in Hospitality Awards, Caterer and Hotelkeeper and sponsor Corerecruitment again aim to dispel the myth that hospitality is all about low wages, low skills and no prospects, and celebrate all that's best about working in the sector.
The awards are in their second year and this year's overall winner - McDonald's - set the bar high. Love or loathe the fast-food chain, with about 67,000 employees in the UK and 1,200 restaurants, it's a ubiquitous presence on the British hospitality landscape and, as an employer, deserved to win this year's plaudits.
The judges were unanimous in their decision to make McDonald's their Platinum Award "winner of winners" as well as winner of the 11 sites or more restaurant or bar chain category. They described the company as "outstanding with people" and praised it for "assuming everyone can go to the top". They singled out its commitment to flexible working, learning and development and its ongoing campaign to dispel the disparaging definition of the word "McJob".
In return, David Fairhurst, vice-president of people at McDonald's Restaurants, stresses that entering the awards can bring very tangible rewards. Not only does it focus the minds of managers, bosses and staff on what's good or bad about working for your company, but it sends a clear message about your values and priorities to staff and customers alike - in McDonald's case so much so that the chain is now advertising its winning status on every door of every restaurant.
"Every crew member will come into work and see that logo," says Fairhurst. "It will help to give confidence to a lot of young people - people who often get labelled failures or disaffected - that they are competent. If you can build competence and confidence, then you can deliver a better offer to your customers."
Others winners this year, which will all be profiled over the coming months, are:
So what won it for McDonald's last year and what sort of standard will this year's entries have to beat?
Among the many initiatives highlighted by the Best Places to Work in Hospitality judges was McDonald's Our Lounge, an innovative staff website that offers skills training and development alongside lifestyle advice and support.
The site, which has also been praised by the Learning and Skills Council and the Confederation of British Industry, lets employees plug skills gaps, supported by online tutors, and take nationally recognised qualifications in accredited exam centre restaurants. It also features film and book reviews and has various forums for staff, including one for employees who have become parents. This, for instance, recently included advice from presenter and author Libby Purves on managing teenagers.
Then there's the innovative "family contract" launched last year, the first of its kind in the UK. This allows two family members working in the same restaurant to cover each other's shifts without prior notice. Restaurant crew can also choose the hours they're available for work in advance and schedule shifts accordingly. Similarly, parents can work during school hours with holidays off, and students can work around college and university, even transferring between restaurants during holidays.
The company's recruitment policy, which is based on hiring staff on attitude rather than experience or qualifications, was noted as having been praised by the Work Foundation and Investors in People for creating opportunities for people from marginalised communities. So, too, was the range of other staff benefits on offer, including eight-week paid sabbaticals and discount cards that offer savings on, for example, driving lessons, holidays and computers.
In 2005 it became the first large employer to achieve Investor in People Profile status and was recently voted one of the Times Top 100 Graduate Employers for the seventh consecutive year.
Other recent initiatives, all led by feedback from employees, have included ensuring all company cars are hybrid environmentally friendly ones. In a similar vein, McDonald's has launched a Cycle to Work initiative with Universal Bicycles, offering employees bikes at a 60% discount, delivered to their door.
And finally there's the McJob issue. The phrase was coined in the USA in the 1980s and popularised in Douglas Coupland's 1991 book Generation X, first appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2001. Its definition, according to the OED, is "an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, especially one created by the expansion of the service sector".
That image has been hard to shift, Fairhurst concedes, but the chain is getting there. Last year the company tackled the label head-on, running a "McProspects" advertising and recruitment campaign, highlighting the fact that half the McDonald's executive team had started out working in its restaurants. And last week the company began a nationwide campaign in 60 town centres to encourage people to sign up to a petition calling for a redefinition of "McJob".
"You have to address the perception gap, of people thinking that because of where they work they're stupid," says Fairhurst. "Last year's campaign was not in reality a recruitment campaign - it was actually a confidence issue. It was about wanting our customers to start treating our staff with more respect. We've done a huge amount of work in trying to bridge that perception gap.
"A lot of people start off at McDonald's with low expectations. A lot of them stay with us for, say, three years and then go off somewhere else because they're a student or going travelling or whatever. But then a lot of them stay."
Staff turnover, compared with the high levels for which much of the industry remains notorious, is very low and management turnover is less than 10%. "We have halved the number of people who leave in the first 90 days," says Fairhurst, partly by introducing an on-the-job, behind-the-counter assessment to see if new applicants actually like it before they start.
"They can talk to their peers on the shift and so there is collective buy-in," he adds. "It has saved us shedloads of time and money."
Of course, for the smaller restaurateur or hotelier, it's all too easy to throw up your arms in despair and say: "Well, they're huge - they can afford to do all this." Not so, says Fairhurst. It's not a question of rushing out initiative after initiative - what is important is simply taking your time to look at what your employees want, what they will value and how you might be able to deliver that.
"The things that attract people to an organisation can be superficial, but the things that keep them tend to be much deeper," says Fairhurst.
"It's about providing tools and motivational things that appeal to them. In return, you get fantastic economic and psychological rewards. It is about an organisation really taking seriously what its employees base their values on and making strong attempts to connect with that.
"It's not rocket science. It's a lot of little things, some of which can get taken for granted, adding up to what you, as an employer, really are."
Take learning and development. McDonald's may have a fantastic history of developing skills and competencies, but now it's got the infrastructure up and running, it need not stop there, says Fairhurst.
"As well as training up the leaders of the future, what we want is to be able to offer people life-long learning," he says.
"We want to be going a stage further, providing qualifications beyond you as an employee - whether it's GCSEs, NVQs or a college course, whatever. We have 1,300 people studying for English and maths qualifications."
But however good the on-paper training and development you offer, unless workers feel good about themselves and their working environment, unless they feel confident in their abilities and what they are providing, it won't make a shred of difference, particularly in a fast-moving service-sector operation.
"Confidence as a factor I think is underestimated," says Fairhurst. "By purely focusing on skills, skills, skills, they can miss the element of how good they feel."
Awards such as the Best Places to Work in Hospitality can play a crucial part in shifting preconceptions, both inside and outside the industry. They can shine a light on areas of best practice and show others that such practices are not unreachable. Crucially, they can also put people and employment issues slap-bang on the board and senior management's radar.
"It is often underestimated what getting an endorsement like this can do, especially to the HR team," says Fairhurst. "It inspires them to go out there, it fills their batteries and gives them more inspiration and confidence."
The judges and what they look for
An expert and fully independent judging panel has been selected for the Caterer and Hotelkeeper Best Places to Work in Hospitality Awards 2008.
The judges have a wealth of experience in all areas of the hospitality industry and HR and are drawn from leading trade and industry bodies and trade magazines. Judging of the various categories will be carried out against specific criteria, which have been outlined in the entry details.
The judges will look for evidence of enthusiasm and fun, as well as benefits. Entrants should demonstrate their commitment to staff development, highlighting examples of creativity. What range of skills is developed? How integrated is the learning? What is the balance between internal and external training?
Judges will also look at how much being a good place to work feeds back into adding value to the business - through better service, quality, and customer understanding.
Businesses should show what they are doing above and beyond the legal HR requirements.
How to enter the best places to work in hospitality awards
Do you run a successful business and treat your staff well? Then why not get greater recognition for your achievements? Get your entry in for the Caterer and Hotelkeeper Best Places to Work in Hospitality Awards 2008.
Go to www.caterersearch.com/onlineteam/bptw/index.html and complete the application form.
2008 Award Categories
The closing date for entries is 31 October. The winners will be announced at a glittering awards ceremony on 18 February 2008. If you have any queries about the awards and how to enter, please contact Lisa Goold on 020 8652 4200, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.