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Hiring Heroes - our interview with Philip Eeles

Hiring Heroes - our interview with Philip Eeles

Hiring Heroes - our interview with Philip Eeles



Tell us about your background

I started Honest Burgers with my mate Tom down in Brighton in 2010. At the time, I was working in a restaurant whilst trying to be a journalist, having recently finished a philosophy degree at Canterbury University (which didn't offer many obvious career options unless you want to be a philosopher). I liked writing so I thought I'd pursue journalism, and started a postgraduate degree at Brighton College.

It was at this point that I met Tom. Over a series of conversations, often in the pub, we decided to do something. We each put in £3,000, and acquired the essentials - a marquee, a fryer and a grill. And off we went! Starting with a few private parties and events, Honest Burgers was born.

In those early days, we didn't really know what we were doing. But people loved the food. We didn't do loads at that point: I was working full-time, running that restaurant. Tom moved up to London and we built a restaurant in Brixton market.

That was in June 2011. We hit the holy grail - in the cool place, at the right time, doing the right product. We didn't do any marketing. People came, forming long queues or unable to get a table, and then they'd tell their mates. Word of mouth and long queues built our reputation.

Fast forward to today, and now we have 41 restaurants around the country. It's been pretty wild.

What are some of the most nagging challenges you face when it comes to hiring?

I've always believed that you have about 5 minutes to make a candidate feel comfortable so they can show their true selves, or at least as much of their authentic self as possible within a short timeframe.

In those initial 5 minutes, I aim to help candidates feel at ease, and then I make a decision about whether they are the type of person I'd like to be around. Once they're comfortable, I'd spend the remaining 50 minutes convincing them to join us by being very energetic and passionate about who we are and what we do. I believe it's essential for candidates to feel relaxed during the interview, creating an environment where they don't feel overwhelmed or intimidated.

Nowadays, we have an in-house recruitment team responsible for managing job advertisements on social media, our website, and job boards, and they handle the initial screening. Our restaurant managers ultimately make the final hiring decisions.

How have supply shocks, Brexit, the global pandemic impacted hiring Honest Burgers?

Badly. I get irrationally annoyed with people in our industry who claim that there is suddenly a recruitment crisis. We've always had one. We've had one for as long as I've been in restaurants, but we didn't have to worry about it because we had incredible Europeans working in our restaurants. We had this incredible pool of people, so we didn't have to worry about the fact that an English kid didn't want to work in hospitality or didn't see it as a career. It made us super lazy, if it's okay to say out loud. I think now we're being found out, and rightly so. Suddenly, that tap has been slowed down, and everyone starts freaking out.

We're starting to realise that actually we need to be better in this industry, and there are loads of cool initiatives looking at what drives behaviour and understanding what is actually going on.

I'm just completing a master's in behavioural science at LSE, so I'm super interested in behaviour. It has really narrowed my focus and understanding of culture down to this: it really doesn't matter what you say or what four values you put down in your manual that no one reads. It's the plumbing and the day-to-day things that happen to our teams that determine whether they will be happy or not, that's having rota principles, and the KPIs you set, for example.

I'm obsessed with the idea of trust, especially in a behavioural and cultural sense. This idea that you can trust someone to work flexibly and from home, and that they will get their job done. They might work until 7 pm, but that means they may not start until 11 am. There's this lack of control for people who were used to managing through control, and I get it. In the end, it all boils down to trust. I'm interested in the differing opinions around whether you place trust in people and they can lose it or whether trust needs to be earned.

What have you seen that works (or doesn't work) when trying to solve these?

Recruit for behaviours, not skills. We are an entry level employer; we can teach the necessary skills. We often hire individuals for whom this might be their first job. Focus on recruiting for behaviour, managing based on behaviour, and teach the required skills. It's quite straightforward: is this person a nice human being? I think that you can look for cultural fit, but ultimately I believe that the environment shapes the individual. It's not the other way around.

I love the quote by Michelle Ann Kline that we are “social learners” when it comes to culture. I don't believe in the concept of recruiting based on culture before someone has even started and expecting a perfect fit. What's more crucial is maintaining the culture you want within your business consistently, backing it up every day without contradictions. When a new employee joins, they will look around the room on their first day to work out what it takes to fit in. If an employee manual emphasises qualities like "quality and simplicity" (which ours does, by the way) and the new employee see's bunch of freezers and microwaves and a chaotic work environment on their first day, what's written in the manual becomes irrelevant. They will look at what is going on around them, and form opinions accordingly on what the culture is.

There can be individuals that you think are totally useless, disengaged, or just totally wrong for the business. And then you change one element, whether that's changing their manager or sprucing up the restaurant, and suddenly that person turns into an absolute superstar. I've seen this so many times, so I've stopped believing that it's down to the individual. Instead, I think it's down to us to create an environment where our expectations are clear, it's a nice place to be, and the values of the business are backed up day-to-day.

We often hear “10% of my roles cause 90% of my problems”. Does this resonate with you?

Absolutely. The pool of people willing to work in hospitality has gotten dramatically smaller. The triple whammy of Brexit, COVID, and the rising cost of living means that we are all fighting in a smaller pool. We have to recruit differently. And it isn't always easy.

Take chefs, for example. Managers are going to be wary of having 10 part-timers instead of 5 full-timers. It's harder to manage rotas and deal with the individual needs of 10 people. Especially in the kitchen, where we prefer longevity. Having a chef who's been with us for years, is a grill master, and can handle the Friday lunch rush - we want to keep them.

Rather than pretending there are plenty of such candidates out there, we need to face the reality that they aren't. We should think about other ways of doing things - for example how can we improve training, how can we create the cultural touch points in the business, how can we change some of our practices in the restaurant so it's simpler. We want to make it less challenging for someone to handle a busy Friday lunchtime rush on the grill - which isn't an easy feat, by the way. Some of our restaurants prepare 300-400 burgers in the space of a couple of hours. Coping with that on the grill takes some serious mental and physical health.

The answer isn't assuming that these people are readily available. We need to change our approach to recruitment, focus on potential, and then provide thorough training. Like Pizza Pilgrims, they have a fantastic academy - all of their teams go through this one location in Camden that is designated for training. That's the way to go.

Why is the candidate experience in the hiring journey important?

People nowadays want to apply for jobs as easily as swiping on Tinder. People sit on the bus home from work, looking at their phone, wondering what job opportunities are out there. It often comes down to pay. There's far more intelligent people than me in marketing, thinking about how you construct those ads to get their attention in 5 seconds.

The balance of power has shifted. There are so many options available, so you've got to be quick and responsive. Unless you can afford to add 20 more people to your HR team, leveraging technology to speed up the hiring process is crucial. Part of that being “do you really care about the CV?” I think we are still clinging to some of the old processes when actually what truly matters is getting candidates excited, moving them swiftly through the process, and still ensuring we hire the right people and create the right environment when they land.

Segmentation is another key aspect. Everyone digests information differently, but there's surprisingly little data and understanding about different candidate types. From what I've seen, no one is scientifically segmenting candidates and then tailoring the candidate journey to suit them.

What do you think is the biggest opportunity for leaders when it comes to talent acquisition and candidate experience?

Leveraging data and technology is essential, but I'm a strong advocate for maintaining human interaction. I think there still needs to be some humanness in that approach.

I like the idea of decentralising recruitment to our restaurants. There's a balance to strike between wanting your managers to focus on a couple of things really well, and perhaps this brings some extra admin and noise, but I think it's so important to get the right team in place. I've found that when managers have had a strong say in the hiring process, it works better. So I would say that leaders need to invest more time and effort in educating their front-line teams to recruit well and understand the culture and what we are looking for. Then the autonomy and ownership sits with the manager, and I think this is really important as they are more bought in.

And it avoids the age-old problem of siloed teams. When someone decides a particular individual isn't a good fit, it can turn into a blame game - the recruitment team blames the restaurant manager for not providing the right training or environment, and the manager blames recruitment for hiring the wrong person. And that's just a waste of everyone's time. The more you can get the “one-team mentality” going, the better. Recruiters will hire according to the cultural manual, and managers will manage based on the plumbing and the environment in their restaurant. If those are different, that's where conflicts may arise.

What's a major talent acquisition trend you're paying attention to in 2023/24?

One trend I'm closely monitoring is blind-hiring. I never used to like it, and there are certainly elements of it that I'm uncomfortable with, but I think we all need to push ourselves to do things that take us out of our comfort zone. Behavioural science suggests that it is impossible for a human being to be entirely non-judgemental. We carry our own biases around with us all the time because, well, we are human. It's impossible not to be influenced by what's happening around us, especially in our environment. So the idea that we're expected to make completely impartial decisions is almost comical. This is where a computer might have an advantage. The ultimate goal is to make decisions as impartial as possible, while layering the human element of making that person feel like they've made the right choice and can be themselves.

This trend is particularly crucial for addressing diversity and inclusion issues. It's challenging for us to de-bias ourselves unconsciously, but by leveraging technology and implementing blind hiring practices, we can make significant progress in this area.

What's one piece of parting wisdom you have for future hiring leaders?

Don't blame your candidates if they don't get it right; 98% of the time it's your fault if someone leaves. We tend to do this thing of 'oh they were this' and 'they were that', and we don't look at the underlying issue, which typically boils down to the culture you've created or the manager.