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You can’t be a slob if you work a McJob. By Sarah Fletcher

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Fast food restaurants are often accused of employing dull eyed halfwits, but according to new research, the industry's people management is not as slack-jawed as you may think. Working 'undercover' in various burger bars across America for 14 months, Jerry Newman, author of My Secret Life on the McJob (McGraw Hill, 2007), aims to explain why the business is a "pioneer in managing when cost control is imperative". What can the experience of this industry teach others about managing employees?

According to Newman, employers must focus solidly on the behaviour they require from staff and gear the whole process – from recruitment to training and beyond – towards this goal. The fast food industry is notorious for its high turnover, for the "gypsy culture" of workers that aimlessly "drift from store to store". This is despite his claim that "good managers were amazingly tolerant of a worker's idiosyncrasies" – unless, as he witnessed in one restaurant, having a penchant for starting food fights descends into throwing knives at co-workers. So if the business is infamous for failing to retain employees, how could it be a "pioneer"?

"Excessive turnover occurs because managers typically just hire people and see who sticks… Failing to hire for fit, perhaps saving time in the early stages of employment, comes back to haunt managers later on."

"Excessive turnover occurs because managers typically just hire people and see who sticks," says Newman. "Failing to hire for fit, perhaps saving time in the early stages of employment, comes back to haunt managers later on," he warns. Also, try to avoid telling the candidate that the job you’re offering is unappealing and could be done by a monkey, he advises: "It's probably not good recruitment strategy to tell me "You don't want this job, go work somewhere else." And yes, I was given this advice by one shift supervisor who honestly thought he was saving me from a horrific experience."

"One of the goals in fast food is to make jobs behind the counter as easy as possible, which in part helps justify the low salaries," explains Newman. Unfortunately, this strategy is actually hugely destructive as if you then find you struggle to do the job easily, you risk feeling like an utter moron. Even if the employee performs well, there's very little gratification because they've already been told that the job is so easy that success just proves they have a brain that's marginally larger than a pea.

A good leader, says Newman, is one who instils a sense of self-worth by making the job appear challenging. His experience with one manager of a fast food restaurant, who grilled him for over an hour, unlike the five minute whip-through interview he received from other managers, proved crucial for successful people management: "to survive a lengthy interview and much behavioural scrutiny during training sent a powerful signal – this job isn't McEasy, and only the best can work for me."

"To survive a lengthy interview and much behavioural scrutiny during training sent a powerful signal – this job isn't McEasy, and only the best can work for me."

This is crucial due to the financial constraints put upon salaries in fast food restaurants. Given the low hourly rate paid to employees – and the restrictions the owner places upon offering anything higher – managers must offer alternative benefits to encourage staff to avoid becoming a part of the high turnover rate. "Instead, the good ones rely on a currency they have control over: recognition for work well done and building self worth for jobs that are mastered," adds Newman.

This is a fairly obvious principle and the managers he cites are hardly revolutionary in aiming to build a friendly company culture to improve retention, but his experience shows that fast food does have something to teach about managing employees. After all, given that the industry is, he says, high pressure for low wages, the business must be doing something right to keep any staff at all. In return, Newman suggests that fast food restaurants provide staff with skills that any employer with half a brain will prize – reliability, the ability to work under pressure and the capacity to cope with difficult customers. Finally, the book suggests that if you're looking for talented employees and strong people management practices, look no further than your local burger bar. It turns out they're not so dull witted after all.

By Sarah Fletcher

5 Responses

  1. Group think
    >>>>Overall I think that organizations that manage their costs tightly do have lessons for the wider world – they may not always be lessons we want to hear.>>>>

    This is a pretty meaningless sweeping statement.
    Overall? What do we mean by overall? “For the most part?”
    Come off it. Moving away from MaccyDee’s, companies who manage their costs tightly often create an environment of working long hours (especially staying late and working through lunch) – bad for health. Create a strong peer pressure culture of unless you are part of the crowd you are part of the problem or isolated – “group think”. As well as in many senses devaluing the family.

    “Overall” I’d say that the lessons companies who manage their costs tightly dont want to hear, are that they are the ones driving society’s wish to improve work/life balance, they are the ones removing final salary pension schemes and they are the ones homogenising our high streets.

  2. Nothing like a bit of McPropaganda….
    I see they neglect to say how many of their management team have had McHeartattacks from the McFood.

    And also how big their executive team is in comparison to the tens of thousands of low paid McJobbers out there…

    But McDonalds are not famous for their McTruthtelling really.

  3. McDonalds rejects the McJob
    McDonalds is planning on launching a campaign to change the dictionary definition of ‘McJob’, as it’s apparently “out of date and inaccurate”.

    Read the story here

    Kind regards,
    Sarah Fletcher
    HR Zone

  4. Challenging pre-conceptions
    Why is it ok to associate ‘gypsy culture’ with drifting aimlessly from job to job when it would be considered deeply offensive if applied to other races?

    Overall I think that organizations that manage their costs tightly do have lessons for the wider world – they may not always be lessons we want to hear.

  5. Obviously hasn’t been to the Wembley branch…
    Nice research, abject nonsense. Here in the Middle East I would agree with him, the staff in most fast food joints are trilingual, hard working (for monthly salaries equivalent to 3 days work in the UK version of the industry) and always happy.

    In the UK, most burger joints appeared to be staffed by Cletus the Slack Jawed Yokel. Scowling, miserable, illiterate and innumerate staff – who often even fail to understand English. I once asked for a burger with only cheese in a certain burger chain’s Wembley branch to be proudly presented with a Big XXX box with a slice of cheese in it (no burger, no bun, just a slice of cheese) and was asked to pay for this!

    The McJob was always designed to be a high turnover, miserable environment, because any muppet can do the job. It means that if you leave, you don’t get any pay rises (which puts up staff costs), you don’t qualify for employment benefits (which put up staff costs) and most importantly you are damnably unlikely to unionise and improve working conditions.

    I worked for two fast food joints when I was at college and I can honestly say I saw no good examples of people management at either and still can’t believe how awful most of my colleagues were.

    So I think I’ll pass on the McTalent and the McJob and particularly the McManager in future.

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