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Casino strategizes to keep good hires on board

fr harrahsBusy season is coming at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, and management there is working to get all hired up for summer. 

With 2,600 jobs to fill, making — and retaining — good hires can be difficult. 

“It’s a challenge,” said Paula Wojtkowski, regional vice president of talent acquisition and development at the casino. “We get a lot of people who leave us for whatever reason. Maybe they had a family issue, maybe they had a difficult time adjusting to the 24/7 work schedule.” 

From year to year, Harrah’s turnover rate comes in around 30 percent, double that of the typical casino in Atlantic City or Las Vegas. It’s a problem the casino is trying to correct, and Wojtkowski is leading the charge. Her job is a new one — in fall 2015, Harrah’s split the talent acquisition function off from human resources to be its own department. The goal is to develop the programs and processes that will attract good employees and get them to stay. 

For starters, they’ve got a new website — — to post openings and information about the positions, also getting the message out through a variety of traditional advertising and social media venues. New “realistic job preview” videos give potential hires an idea about what it might be like to actually hold particular positions. Often, jobs at the casino are a lot different than jobs elsewhere with similar titles. 

For example, Wojkowski said, “You have experience perhaps being a cashier at a local supermarket — you might apply for a cashier. But if you’re working at Harrah’s Cherokee, you might have a million dollars in your drawer.” 

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With large amounts of cash come large amounts of rules to prevent theft and corruption. When you walk into Walmart, Wojkowski said, you can always tell who works for the casino — out of habit they’ll show their hands to the security camera after handing over cash. The movement, called “clearing your hands,” is required after every transaction in order to prove that no money is being stolen, and it becomes habit. 

Wojkowski is also working through how to better integrate new employees into the team when they are hired, a process called “onboarding.”

“It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle or sometimes feel like you’re just a number,” Wojkowski said. “We put together a strategy to give folks the best onboarding experience they can get.”  

There’s also the process of finding the right people to begin with. The casino hires based on attitude, Wojkowski said, looking for people who are eager to learn and able to talk easily to any of the 10,000 customers they’ll encounter on a daily basis. The interview process, with is basically a panel conversation with applicants and managers in the room together, reflects that. 

The question might be as simple as “What’s your favorite candy bar?” Wojkowski said. “What we’re looking for is people who can interact with strangers on a moment’s notice and have it be a positive interaction.” 

They’ve also started asking more questions about what kind of commitment potential hires are looking for. 

“We’ve gotten more selective about our hires in terms of making sure people are looking for a longer-term position,” Wojkowski said. 

That said, she’s well aware that the casino industry isn’t for everyone. It is the definition of a 24/7 business, and that can be hard on some people, especially those with young kids. The busiest part of the week is 6 p.m. Friday to 6 p.m. Sunday, so dealing with the schedule can be challenging. 

“We jokingly always tell people we work when other people play,” Wojkowski said. 

There’s also the fact that the casino industry is highly regulated. There are lots of rules to follow, and mistakes carry consequences. Then there’s the size of the organization — some people are just more suited to smaller companies — and the necessity of being on time to scheduled shifts. 

But there are also plenty of perks — good pay, comprehensive benefits, full-time employment, opportunity for advancement. Harrah’s challenge going forward is to do a better job of finding and training the people for whom the pros will outweigh the cons. 

The environment in Cherokee is a good bit different than in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, towns that are basically built around the casino industry. Restaurants in Western North Carolina don’t stay open extra late to cater to casino workers, for instance — life and society proceed based on the 9-5 p.m., Monday through Friday, workweek while casino employees operate on anything but. 

However, Wojkowski believes there’s opportunity to get the turnover rate down below the typical 30 percent and definitely below the 38 percent high mark tallied in 2015. The opening of the Valley River Casino in Murphy had a lot to do with that, Wojkowski said, because in 2015 Harrah’s was trying to hire up a whole new casino in addition to replacing employees who left the Cherokee casino, and a large number of employees at the Cherokee casino left for jobs in Murphy. The turnover rate has been as low as 22 percent, though, achieved in the early 2000s before the recession. When the economy collapsed, Harrah’s, like many other businesses, took resources away from “extras” like employee engagement and training, which Wojkowski believes hurt the turnover rate. 

The goal is to get it back down toward 20 percent.

“This is something that as a management team we talk about no less than every two weeks when we meet,” Wojkowski said. “We constantly have turnover strategies by department. Each department has its own particular challenges.” 

Getting it right, Wojkowski said, is “absolutely critical.”

“Our employees make our business,” she said. “They can make us or break us.” 

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