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," 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."
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