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Smokey Bones HR manager blends HR and customer service

Rob Benninghove, VP of HR at Smokey Bones, believes if he serves his employees well, they'll serve their customers well.

The route Rob Benninghove took to becoming an HR manager may be untraditional, but to him it makes perfect sense. Now vice president of HR at Smokey Bones, a casual dining chain headquartered in Orlando, Fla., Benninghove got his start as a general manager at Olive Garden. The two roles are really not so different, he explained.

Rob BenninghoveRob Benninghove,
VP of HR, Smokey Bones

"I think that the adrenaline an operator gets on a busy Friday night is something you never forget -- it's exhilarating," he said. "But I was successful as an operator because I understood that my job was to ensure that every guest was delighted with their experience, and the way I did that was to ensure that my managers and my employees liked where they were, and bought into the same vision that I had -- so I was really a human resources professional as a GM."

Given Benninghove's enthusiasm for training, Olive Garden eventually offered him a position in leadership development, which gave him the opportunity to learn about HR and launched him on the path to his current position.

But he is still an "operator at heart," which gives him a unique perspective on what it means to be an HR manager. "Now as the VP of HR, my customers are the operations team. The better I can serve the operations team, the better they can serve the customers," he said. "It's different responsibilities, but the goal is the same: customer service."

Promoting HR data-driven decisions over gut feeling

Benninghove's commitment to people played into the company's recent decision to adopt the assessment software PeopleAnswers. The software will be used for screening candidates for store manager positions in each of the chain's 66 locations as well as corporate positions. While Benninghove is excited about the prospect of enhancing the recruitment process, the candidate experience was also a top concern for him when weighing the offerings from various vendors.

"Having a tool that created a quality candidate experience was important to me," he said. "It's not uncommon for a restaurant manager to have two competing job offers and often the quality of their experience during the screening and interview process is the reason that they choose Smokey Bones."

Benninghove also said he hopes PeopleAnswers will encourage hiring managers to rely more on data and less on "gut feeling" when screening candidates. Currently, the company is using PeopleAnswers' standard "Best Practice" employee profile while gathering the data to create a Smokey Bones custom profile. The traits in the generic profile that the organization is putting the most weight on include confidence, motivation, accountability, honesty, empathy and respect -- competencies that Benninghove said are linked to Smokey Bones' Core Values, such as "Be Bold, Have Guts," "Embrace Excitement" and "Own What You Do."

The open-door policy isn't a poster that's on a wall -- it's actionable.
Rob BenninghoveVP of HR, Smokey Bones

In general, Benninghove said he thinks the dawn of analytics in HR is a positive development -- if done correctly.

"I like accountability, and analytics bring accountability. The challenge is to make sure they're meaningful analytics," he said. "To me, an analytic needs to be a hard number, and you need to have the data to back it up."

Benninghove has supervised multiple HR software implementations during his seven-year tenure at Smokey Bones, including a rollout of ADP that occurred after Darden Restaurants, the chain's then-owner, sold the brand to Sun Capital Partners in 2007. Benninghove cited this transition as the biggest challenge of his career as an HR manager.

"When we were with Darden, the support structure was second to none," he said. "So we went from having full departments that would focus on recruiting or training or compensation or benefits down to a team of only initially three [people]. The accountability on your shoulders is much greater, but it made me a better contributor."

Smokey Bones eventually replaced ADP with Paycore, the company's current HRIS and Payroll system. The chain uses Taleo as an applicant tracking system (ATS) for manager positions and Corvirtus as an ATS and screening system for hourly employees.

But there's room for improvement, and Benninghove said systems integration is a challenge. To address these problems, the IT team recently finished an assessment of the organization's HR systems, and offered recommendations for improvement. In light of these suggestions, Benninghove expects the company will implement new software and perform upgrades to existing systems in coming years, changes that he thinks will strengthen the organization.

"They've helped us come up with some priorities, and so we're in the best position possible to really grow and build this brand," he said.

HR is a balancing act

As for what makes a successful HR manager, Benninghove said it's a balancing act between understanding and enabling the company's objectives while simultaneously representing the interests of the employees. "HR priorities have got to be aligned with the priorities of the organization," he said. "You have to understand where the organization is going and what your role is in helping the company achieve the strategies.

"At the same time, HR also needs to act as a people advocate. An HR team is kind of the strategic conscience of the organization," Benninghove added. "A big part of what my role is at the table is bringing it back to the people. When we make decisions, they have to be right for guests, for employees and for investors, so HR is there to provide balance."

According to Benninghove, many HR managers regard HR as a siloed function, at times even opposing other business units. In his opinion, this is the wrong mindset.

"When you hear people say they don't have a seat at the table, I think those individuals feel there's an adversarial relationship between operations and HR," he said. "But we're partners, enablers and supporters. That has to be your mantra."

His advice to his peers in HR is simple: Keep it about the people. He said some HR departments become overly focused on risk management, and when that happens, people start to fear HR. According to Benninghove, that kind of atmosphere isn't beneficial for either party.

"If my operators are trying to separate themselves from me, I'm doing them a huge disservice, so the open door policy isn't a poster that's on a wall -- it's actionable," he said. "At the end of the day we all want to at least know that our concerns have been considered, so the role of HR is to ensure that communication is open, honest, timely and meaningful."

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