In March 2020, Bryan Levine had just given notice at his job to accept the role of director of compensation and benefits at BJ’s Restaurants. He’d been interested in the organization for years and even applied for a position there earlier in his career, but it hadn’t worked out. He was excited to finally be part of an organization that emphasized doing the right thing over increasing its bottom line. Then the pandemic hit, and everything looked like it was in jeopardy.
“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a moment of pure panic,” Levine says. “But I called my leader, and was assured that nothing had changed, and the company was going to make it through. It was a challenge that was going to need HR help on all fronts, but we didn’t know that quite yet.”
Levine had spent the last handful of years building out total rewards expertise, but as the pandemic progressed, and weeks turned into months, the HR executive would assume an all-hands-on-deck approach to help the company weather its most challenging moment.
As he was coming onboard, BJ’s, like many restaurant groups, was in the process of laying off thousands of employees. Soon it became clear that restaurant management would also have to be furloughed. Levine had finally gotten a dream role, only to find a nightmare unfolding around him.
“The goal, from the outset, was to ensure that our team members were going to be taken care of through this entire ordeal,” Levine explains. “On the HR side, we made sure to keep their benefits active. We just asked that those team members send in payments for whatever their normal contribution for benefits was. We even set up a payment process through PayPal to make this change as easy as possible.”
With laws at the federal, state, and local level changing daily, the organization was constantly pivoting and trying to bring back as many employees as possible. First there was takeout business, then alcohol sales. Levine and his team worked to ensure that general managers were meeting the guidelines to maintain their exemption status and evolving roles to ensure that more people could return to work.
“The common theme I’ve seen since I got to BJ’s is that the leadership team wants to do what is right, even if that might cost the organization more money,” Levine explains. “The focus here is on the team member and the team member experience. I think most organizations say they operate that way, but I now have the opportunity to work for a business that doesn’t just say it—they act on it.”
That commitment has evolved from focusing on emergency management to long-term recruiting, retention, and member experience. At a time when recruiting is the toughest it’s been in decades, Levine says it’s imperative for BJ’s to differentiate itself from its competition.
For starters, the HR team has been building out fixed-indemnity plans that provide low-cost insurance for hourly employees who may not have any other kind of coverage. “For an organization of our size, we’re trying to find ways to benefit our employees that still make sense for a mid-sized company,” Levine explains. “We’ve taken the same approach when it comes to continuing education.”
BJ’s is also currently creating a tuition reimbursement program that Levine says will help build loyalty as well as opportunities for hourly employees to eventually rise into more senior roles. “If we’re going to invest in the education of our team members, we also want to have a shot at retaining that talent,” Levine says. “We want to incentivize people to stay.”
Internal promotion is already a hallmark of the way BJ’s does business, Levine says, but he wants to ensure that employees who join as part-time workers in high school, for example, have the chance to grow under the company’s umbrella.
“We want our team members to know that no matter what role they want to work toward, they can stay here as long as they want,” Levine explains.
The HR team also conducted a full pay equity analysis; the results didn’t surprise Levine. The company’s pay equity numbers were solid, but HR wants to ensure that no matter what a prospective employee’s background or experience may be, there aren’t any unnecessary roadblocks standing in their way.
It’s what Levine loves about his company. Their approach is always evolving, and the benefits team is encouraged to think outside the box to determine the best ways to attract and retain talent. He credits the company’s internal culture with some of its success.
“I’ve seen this organization at its most challenged, and I’ve seen it on the other side of it,” Levine says. “The culture has remained the same—if not gotten stronger—through the hard times. That’s the sign of a place you want to be.”