HR challenges… I’m lovin’ it

“You’re worth nothing more than a job in McDonald’s”. It is a variant of an insult most of us are familiar with. Indeed, judges on the current series of ITV talent show The X-Factor regularly use it to denigrate performers.

Throwaway comments like this may seem harmless, but to the 67,000 UK employees at the fast food chain, they can be hurtful and damaging to morale, as the scores of e-mails sent to McDonald’s head office immediately after a recent X-Factor episode testified.

But Sharon Osbourne and Simon Cowell are not alone in using McDonald’s to score cheap points – the reputation as a provider of ‘McJobs’ for the bottom rung of society has plagued the company for years.

Overcoming this is perhaps the greatest challenge facing David Fairhurst, who gave up his role as HR number two at Tesco in June to take the top job in HR – vice-president for people – at McDonald’s UK.

“I came here because I want to make a difference,” he told Personnel Today. “The big challenge is the perception gap, between what people believe and the reality. Our reputation is just not acceptable.”

Speaking from his glass-fronted office in east Finchley, north London, Fairhurst reeled off a list of facts to highlight why McDonald’s is, in his view, an employer of choice. It creates more entrepreneurs than any other employer in the UK through its franchises; it has been commended for improving the basic skills of its staff by the Work Foundation; and 80% of its managers started off as hourly-paid ‘crew members’.

It is the last statistic that is most surprising – don’t people work in McDonald’s for a few months, but get fed up flipping burgers and mopping floors and then leave?

“It’s not just a job”

Not so, said Fairhurst. “People do come in with a ‘job’ mentality, but after three months or so, they become evangelists because of the leadership and community spirit that exists in stores,” he said. “For many, it’s not just a job, but a career.”

This is not just a well-rehearsed soundbite – the average length of service for a McDonald’s manager is 10 years. And many ‘crew members’ work their way up to the very top of the organisation – five of the current board began in-store.

This career progression, part of what McDonald’s brands a ‘pipeline mentality’, is highlighted by Lynn Phillips, Fairhurst’s number two in HR. Phillips was a crew member in the Croydon store – one of the very first McDonald’s to open in the UK in 1976 – and has worked her way up the company ever since.

A more recent addition to Fairhurst’s team is Jez Langhorn, who has been appointed employee reputation manager. His sole job is to promote the employer brand to staff – for example, by collecting good practice stories.

It is unusual appointments like this that show how much work Fairhurst and McDonald’s as a whole has to do to shake off its image as a provider of low-paid jobs and unhealthy food.

While the attempt to reposition the McDonald’s brand as a provider of healthy food, such as fresh salads and yoghurts, has been largely the work of the marketing team, the HR department has also had a role to play, Fairhurst said.

“One of our key messages is the quality of our food, which is a promotion and product issue, but clearly people fit in with that,” he said. “If you look after your people, you get a quality process.”

Talking to staff

And while McDonald’s has been attempting to portray a responsible image to customers, espousing the benefits of a balanced diet and active lifestyle, it also regularly communicates this to staff.

Which makes sense for a company that offers free meals to shift staff – nothing like a bunch of employees stuffing Big Macs down their mouths to ruin a multi-million pound marketing campaign.

Improving communication has been the primary focus of Peter Beresford, UK chief executive of McDonald’s, since he joined the company 12 months ago.

He implemented a number of initiatives, including ‘Ask Peter’, a direct e-mail, ‘Town Halls’, a monthly live online event where board members answer questions from staff, and the MDUK staff magazine.

“The quality of communication has impressed me,” said Fairhurst. “It was the first thing Peter did: more listening. I am the only person in the building who has doors on his office (due to the confidential nature of HR discussions).”

These changes have also been welcomed by staff, according to the newly-published 2005 annual employee survey results.

Ninety-day turnover for hourly-paid staff has decreased by 5% compared to 2004, pride in the company has increased by 14%, and loyalty is up 6%.

Crunching statistics like these is second nature to a life-long retailer like Fairhurst. Born into a family of retailers, Fairhurst has worked for a number of ‘superbrands’ in the sector including Tesco, Heinz and what was SmithKlineBeecham.

But it wasn’t the original plan. Fairhurst, against the wishes of his family, trained to be a priest and studied social sciences and psychology at university. However, after he left education, Fairhurst lost the ambition to go into the church, instead taking a job at Lucas Industries.

His biggest inspirations are his grandfather, who has the qualities of a “poet, a priest and a prizefighter”, and Lou Manzi, the vice-president of HR at GlaxoSmithKline.

“He had a fantastic ability to inspire, and to make you believe the impossible was possible,” Fairhurst said. “Ten years ago, he banned the use of paper CVs across the UK, which people said would simply not be feasible as many people did not have PCs. But he signed a deal with local libraries so applicants could use their PCs for free.”

And despite being a Manchester United fan, Wigan-born Fairhurst has also taken inspiration from his home-town club’s promotion to the Premiership – nearly “having a coronary” watching the recent tight game with Chelsea.

It is hard to say who has a tougher task – Wigan attempting to stay in the Premiership, or McDonald’s shaking off its ‘McJob’ image. It remains to be seen how successful they will be.

McDonald’s: Key facts and figures

  • 67,000 staff – for 25,000, it is their first job
  • 100 staff in HR and training
  • 17,000 staff go through company training annually at a cost of 10m
  • 90-day turnover for hourly-paid staff has decreased by 5% compared to 2004, pride has increased by 14%, and loyalty is up 6%
  • Average length of service for managers is 10 years
  • 80% of managers and five board members started out as ‘crew’
  • 38% of store managers are women
  • 60% of staff are aged 16-21

Fairhurst’s top tips

  • Create value not activity
  • Advance organisational and individual performance
  • Do not over-complicate
  • Lead for maximum profit growth

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