Starbucks and McDonald’s are two of most widely-recognized brands in the world, known for the consistency in their products and services. But right now, they’re becoming known for something else: inappropriate treatment of employees and customers.
Starbucks recently experienced a case of alleged racial profiling in Philadelphia in which an employee called the police on two African American customers, who were sitting peacefully waiting for their colleague before ordering. Video captured from the incident shows an upsetting and decidedly customer-unfriendly experience. At the same time, McDonald’s is dealing with recent revelations of sexual harassment and assault of employees, based on the filing of 11 complaints with the EEOC in eight states.
What I find striking is that both of these companies are the epitome of fast, efficient, and consistent delivery of their products and services. When I travel, no matter where I am, I try to find the closest Starbucks because I know what I’m going to get. My coffee will be served at just the right temperature and the French Roast will be consistently strong. Similarly, when I drive from Atlanta to wherever and back, I stop at a McDonald’s somewhere along the route for an ice cream cone. It’s always refreshing and always the same size and texture.
When I pointed out this reputation for consistency to a colleague the other day, he said “But how you treat people is not the same as how you prepare a cup of coffee or a burger.” And, indeed it isn’t. But I wondered, “Why should it be any different?”
At Starbucks, I’ve watched how coffee is brewed and cups are filled and placed into my hands quickly. McDonald’s functions much like a small factory with speed and consistency in preparing fast foods – from hamburgers to fries to the ice cream.
The point here is not to suggest that the making of coffee and the treatment of people are the same, but to point out the preset processes and standards that are in embedded in how these corporations make and deliver their food and beverages. That type of consistency doesn’t happen without top-level commitment to training, communication, consequences and continuity; the same investment should be made in routinizing the standards employees are held to in their interactions with each other and with customers. Employees get the messages about quality and product consistency over and over and over again. Think of the harm to these brands if customers didn’t know what they’d get when they walked in the door and ordered off the menu!
The point here is not to suggest that the making of coffee and the treatment of people are the same, but to point out the preset processes and standards that are in embedded in how these corporations make and deliver their food and beverages.
The business impetus to put the bad headlines behind them is clearly there for both companies. Starbucks has taken a prominent position on opposing racial and other forms of discrimination proceeding this situation. McDonald’s, too, has always portrayed itself as an inclusive company, featuring commercials known for having employees from different backgrounds in every level job. Its commitment to fair treatment has also been well-known, as company spokeswoman Terri Hickey noted in a recent statement: “At McDonald’s Corporation, we are and have been committed to a culture that fosters the respectful treatment of everyone… There is no place for harassment and discrimination of any kind in our workplace.”
Starbucks even went so far as to close all U.S. stores yesterday afternoon, so it could conduct system-wide training on racial discrimination, including unconscious bias, and the necessity to purge all racially based conduct from its stores. While necessary as a public gesture of corporate commitment, this move is just the starting point. Their training and on-the-job reinforcement should be at least as frequent and routinized as their other core operations and standards. Nobody learns how to become an expert barista overnight based on one four-hour training program. The company shouldn’t expect that creating a more welcoming environment for customers will happen overnight, either.
McDonald’s is likely considering some type of training or communication strategy even though its stores are mostly franchised, and the company has taken steps to differentiate between McDonald’s corporate staff and that of its franchisees. Employment lawyers recognize that, for McDonald’s, there would be significant legal risks if it were seen as the co-employer of privately-owned stores. That said, the general public is not going to separate the behavior of franchisees from that of the company or brand. What will happen if McDonald’s no longer has the reputation as a safe place for teenagers to get a first job in a welcoming and inclusive environment?
My recommendation is that both companies must make sure that their standards for employee and customer treatment are specific, consistent, and defined by clear behaviors that prevent discrimination and harassment based on gender, race, or any other protected class. Each company needs to embed in its training communications and processes a set of standards that are as understood and well-followed as the processes each uses in making its products.
The formula for fair treatment in terms of customers and employees should be thought of as a recipe with clear and specific behavioral ingredients of what you do and what you don’t do – as immutable as the idea that Starbucks does not serve weak, cold coffee and McDonald’s does not tolerate stale French fries. And when there are such issues, staff and customers must feel comfortable raising them and addressing their concerns without fear of retaliation.
The formula for fair treatment in terms of customers and employees should be thought of as a recipe with clear and specific behavioral ingredients of what you do and what you don’t do
Will these two fast-food giants be able to deal with these crises in a way that rebuilds the public’s trust? Will their actions lead to lasting change, not just high-profile publicity events? Only time – and an all-around commitment to employees and customers – will tell.