View from the Kitchen
Why vacations should be mandatory

Why vacations should be mandatory

You need a holiday
Take a holiday
Find a far-off wonderland
Where you might regain command
Of your life today.”

—“Holiday” by Jimmy Buffett

I started in the work world when I was around five. My dad was a consulting chemical engineer and would take me to his laboratory. After college and law school I was a bank attorney for about 15 years before I started cooking. I brought what I learned in those two very different businesses to the foodservice operations I ran before I switched to teaching.

One thing I learned early on: Vacations should be mandatory.

My dad required everyone to take their vacations because he wanted everyone cross trained. If Chet had to fill in for Gary when Gary went on vacation, then Chet needed to know how to do Gary’s job. Thus, if Chet called in sick one day, the operation wasn’t crippled. Gary had to do the job of two, but they could make it through the day. More importantly, if Chet left, then Gary could train the new person. See where I am going with this? If vacations were optional, there would never be a push to make sure that one person could cover for another.

In banks, vacations are required for a very different reason: fraud detection. If someone processing payments is skimming a little here and there it will usually come out when someone takes over her job while she is on vacation. If a real estate loan officer is not getting proper documentation, this will come to light when someone else has to work her files for a few weeks. Many banks got in trouble with regulators back in the ‘80s for not enforcing vacation policies.

How does this relate to restaurants and other foodservice operations?

1. Forcing vacations requires cross training at all levels and all parts of the operation. Most operations give lip service to cross training. Requiring vacations forces the issue. When someone becomes ill or leaves it is important that the hostess can fully run the POS, the g.m. knows how to take reservations, the dishwasher can pitch in on and the line cooks understand how to expedite. Everyone talks about working as a team, but can the team function if one of the team members is gone?

2. Is your chef trading product out the back door for drugs? (I had one who did.) Is the manager running a popup with a chef friend after hours? Is the person who handles receiving pocketing a little (or a lot) for home? Is the receptionist running an escort service using your phones and your computers, and staffed by your servers? Are there phantom people on your payroll? Right now, as you read this, you think the answer to all of the above is no. Yet all of these things have happened to me or close friends. The abuses were all discovered when vacations were taken.

(Yes, I am aware that many of your employees don’t receive paid vacations. You will have to weigh the risk of losing someone versus the risk of improper conduct. Don’t, however, fall into the naïve trap of thinking that all of your employees are as loyal and honest as the day is long.)

One more tip that I learned at both my dad’s place and banks: Never let the bank statements be received by the person who writes the checks, and never let that person reconcile the bank statements. The g.m. or owner should eyeball all of the returned checks (either in paper or electronically.) Even if you write 400 checks a month it should not take you more than four minutes. You don’t need to study each check, you just need to glance at them quickly to see if you recognize all of the payees (Sysco is okay, the bookkeeper’s 15-year-old daughter isn’t) and that the amounts make sense. A $3,000 check written to your produce company might be okay, $13,000 isn’t. Even if you sign the checks before they go out, look at them when they come back with the bank statement, or look at them frequently on line. I have seen checks that had altered payees or amounts after they were signed and I have seen too many signature forgeries to count.

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