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Part 2: Would You Like A Fight With That?

McDonald's is at the forefront of a growing concern over worker—and customer—safety today. Is there a solution, or is it just "the way things are today?"

In the first installment of this two-part article series ("Part 1: Would You Like A Fight With That?"), we examined how threats of violence—and actual violence—at the some 14,000 McDonald's restaurants all across the United States has now come to the forefront of public attention. While we may have all witnessed our fellow humans behaving badly anywhere two or more people are gathered these days, take one look at your Facebook or Twitter feed, and you are very likely to see a video of McDonald's customers, workers, managers, or a combination thereof arguing or fighting somewhere in America. 

These videos—yes, some are ones that we may heartily laugh at, while others may frighten even Marines—serve as anecdotal evidence of what has become a very real problem for the fast food giant. The issues involved in workplace safety are not—by any means—unique to McDonald's. However, the sheer size of the America's largest restaurant chain means that the company has become the focal point of concern over worker—and yes, customer—safety in the modern day U.S. of A.!  

In this second and concluding installment in this article series, we will examine two new developments that are taking these safety—and yes, legal—concerns to new levels. With both the recent release of a major new study from from the National Employment Law Project on the frequency of violent incidents—and threats of such occurrences—at McDonald's and the filing of a formal complaint with OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) by a group employees at a Chicago McDonald's location that asks for a formal look nationwide at the problem of workplace safety across the mammoth restaurant chain, the pressure is on McDonald's executives—and their franchisees—to take proactive measures.

In this article, we will look at these two recent major developments that have focused the spotlight more than ever on the problems facing McDonald's. Then, we will offer an analysis on just what managers in the service sector can do in light of the modern phenomenon that is the spillover of America into American establishments of all kinds and all sizes. And yes, McDonald's—the most accessible of all American fast food restaurants—always near, always affordable, and yes, increasingly always open—is at the forefront of this uniquely American problem. Even with—and perhaps because of—the seeming intransigent societal issues that we collectively face today, there are common sense steps that not just McDonald's, but really all restaurants and retail establishments (and especially those in the fast food sector), should implement to help prevent—and mitigate—the very real costs—physical, psychological, and yes, monetary—that workplace safety poses for service-oriented businesses of all types and their employees and customers today.

The McDonald's Workplace: Where "Stuff" Happens

Just how serious is the level of violence at McDonald's restaurants these days? As you will recall, in the first part of this article series, we examined the whole spectrum of worker and customer safety at the company's 14,000 locations across the United States. And yes, it is not the result of your imagination—or the Facebook algorithm. "Stuff" does seems to be happening at McDonald's restaurants—from big cities to one-stoplight towns—with increasing frequency

One of the incidents we looked at in the first part of this article series involved an incident that occurred earlier this year in St. Petersburg, Florida, where a McDonald's customer was upset over not getting a straw for his drink. As is evident in the video, the belligerent customer made a very bad decision by trying to fight with the 20 year-old female McDonald's worker.

Little did this overly angry customer know that Yasmine James was a trained boxer, and when he escalated the confrontation to become physical, she—in the words of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, did indeed "lay the smacketh down" on the angry customer!

This "straw man" incident was one of many that has happened in recent years to go viral on social media. However, it also led local Ms. James' fellow McDonald's employees in the St. Petersburg restaurant to stage a walkout over their safety concerns, highlighting what has become a seemingly intransigent problem for the fast food giant—and drawing mainstream media attention to the issue of workplace safety for McDonald's workers.

The Report from the National Employment Law Project

Very recently, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) issued a report entitled Behind the Arches: How McDonald's Fails to Protect Workers from Workplace Violence. To say the least, the picture that was painted by their report was alarming! However, by intention, and by design, the analysis really only captured the tip of the iceberg of the workplace safety issues at McDonald's. The report was prepared by Deborah Berkowitz, a former chief of staff, and then senior policy adviser at OSHA who now directs NELP’s worker health and safety program,   

The approach taken by Berkowitz was to analyze media reports involving violent incidents occurring at McDonald's locations in the Continental United States over a three-year period ending on April 15, 2019. In all, the author analyzed and categorized 721 separate incidents that resulted in media reports during this time frame. According to Berkowitz, the laundry list of incidents that drew media coverage included "shootings, robberies, sexual assaults, battery, and other forms of harassment and abuse." And as she wrote, "violence at McDonald’s locations takes place in all areas of the store, from the lobby and bathrooms to the drive-thru and parking lot." 

And what led to these incidents? Some of the over 700 events that she analyzed were certainly intentional violent crimes, such as armed robberies, assaults, and even murders that took place at McDonald's locations. However, as was the case in the "straw man" episode from St. Petersburg we just saw, many of the incidents seemed to grow out of customers getting angry "petty grievances"—i.e., they were missing fries from their drive-thru order, waiting too long for their food, or to have their order taken, or want more barbecue sauce! 

Now admittedly, what it takes for "an incident" to rate news coverage today is far, far different from what it takes for someone to post a video of something that they witness at a McDonald's. That is why the National Employment Law Project's report truly just touches on the very tip of the iceberg of the workplace safety issues facing McDonald's, its managers, its workers, and yes, it customers. 

The old adage in the television news business, and indeed across much of the media, is that "if it bleeds, it leads!" And so in order for a violent incident to draw media attention in the current age, it typically will involve a high-level of violence or threat—and that means guns. Indeed, Berkowitz found that 72 percent of the media-covered incidents that she analyzed involved the use of guns to "threaten, pistol-whip, or shoot McDonald’s employees." One such incident that she highlighted was when "a man shot the manager of a McDonald’s in Altamonte Springs, Florida in the neck after they got into an argument over a frappé order!" At another Florida McDonald's, this one in Tampa, another worker recounted her story to a news reporter, stating:

“I was working in the lobby wiping tables when I noticed a customer using their personal cup to get soda out of the machine. I approached him and told him that he could not do that. At that point, the customer opened up his jacket, showed me a gun and put his hand on it. I backed away slowly, terrified for my life.”

What is under the tip of the iceberg—and the true level of the workplace safety problem at McDonald's locations? The NELP report hints that the frequency of "stuff" happening at McDonald's restaurants all across the country is indeed far, far larger than anyone—even likely those in the company's top management ranks—may truly be able to grasp. 

To show just how big the problem may indeed be in actuality, Berkowitz looked in-depth at two cities in particular—St. Louis and Chicago. She found that even her compilation of 721 media-reported incidents were likely just a fraction of all of the violent—and near-violent—incidents that take place in McDonald's restaurants literally every day in those two locales alone:

Even more alarming is that incidents covered by the media represent only a fraction of all incidents that take place at the fast food giant’s stores. McDonald’s workers are regularly subjected to verbal abuse, threats of physical violence, and other forms of harassment that are rarely reported to authorities, and consequently not covered by news media. Further, in large cities where gun violence has become shamefully routine, even those incidents that are reported to the authorities may fail to grab the attention of local media. In Chicago, for example, more than 21 calls are made on an average day to emergency services from McDonald’s stores in the city. Most notably, one store had 1,356 calls made to 911 over a three-year period, but the media only covered two incidents at this store during this time.
Similarly, crime data from St. Louis, Missouri also shows that the media only cover a fraction of all incidents that take place at the city’s McDonald’s stores. The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department crime reports database lists 67 violent incidents occurring at city McDonald’s in the three-year period ending on April 15, 2018, compared to only three reports of violence at McDonald’s in the local news over the same period. The three incidents covered by the media involved armed robberies, two of which occurred at the same store, which has been the site of five other robberies since April 2016.

In Behind the Arches, Berkowitz did not speculate as to just how big and how bad the real overall numbers might indeed be. Yet, given her analysis of media reports, along with the anecdotal evidence that we have all seen on social media from McDonald's customers and workers posting their smartphone videos (and yes, even in 2019, things still do happen that aren't captured on video), this we know: McDonald's restaurants are increasingly places where bad things occur. They are by no means the only public place that customers, workers, and managers do end-up behaving badly in modern life,  but they are uniquely susceptible for such circumstances to occur—more on that later in this article!

The OSHA Complaint from Chicago McDonald's Employees

The second major development that has put McDonald's in the spotlight for its workplace safety issues is a legal one. This month has also seen a group of McDonald's employees in Chicago file a formal complaint with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration over what they allege to be unsafe working conditions at their particular restaurant. Their OSHA complaint certainly brings not just even more attention to the issues the restaurant giant faces in this regard, but perhaps new legal liabilities as well. 

So how bad is the violence problem at this particular McDonald's location? Well, the video above has a worker describing how they were to go about working in the aftermath of a shooting in their restaurant. And in an excellent Bloomberg article by Josh Eidelson detailing the workers' OSHA complaint, the employees at this particular McDonald's reported several "hair-raising"-level circumstances. These included dozens of 911 calls and 3 employees being threatened at gunpoint at this single restaurant, all in just the past six months. The employees even cited a specific incident in their complaint, where:

... a customer made it over the counter and into their kitchen and started throwing things, including hot water and coffee containers, at employees. Afterward, a manager told employees that if it happened again, they should respond by throwing hot oil or coffee at the intruder, according to the complaint.

Additionally, workers say that store management discouraged them from reporting such incidents to authorities or to McDonald's higher ups out of fear that the location could be closed down over the level of violence.

Just how bad was the fear of violence in this restaurant? One of the workers filing the OSHA complaint stated very plainly and succinctly:

“I get scared basically every time I hear customers yelling. I think about starting to run because I don’t want to get punched or shot.” 

The Real Issue: Accessibility

So, why does this "stuff" seem to happen at McDonald's restaurants more than anywhere else in the restaurant industry, or seemingly, anywhere else in America. It can be boiled down to one thing: McDonald's is accessible

The Definition of Accessible

Source: Merriam-Webster (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/accessible

Take for instance something that we have grown rather accustomed to just over the past decade or so—the idea of the "always open"—and accessible—fast food restaurant. Two decades ago, about the only restaurants that were in operation 24 hours a day were in select places like the Las Vegas Strip, or, if you were lucky, one of the busiest airports in the world. Time is indeed now the final aspect of accessibility in the McDonald's service equation. And while we may really, really need that Big Mac at two AM, there is a cost aspect to the always open fast food restaurant that is now coming to the public's attention.

The idea of having fast food available all day and all night was simply just not something available to the vast majority of Americans until very recently. As part of one of its succession of turnaround plans, this one called the “Plan to Win,” McDonald's pioneered the concept of having locations that were always open in the mid-2000s. Consider this startling statistic from an article from Businessweek at the time: In 2002, less than one percent of all McDonald's US locations were open 24/7. By 2007, that number had reached approximately 40 percent! Of course today, the idea of a McDonald's actually totally closing at some point during the night—and not having at least its drive-thru operation open overnight—is almost a rarity, outside of some urban and rural locations.

However, as Berkowitz's research for Behind the Arches clearly shows, the chain's "all hours strategy" does increase its vulnerability to violent incidents occurring at its restaurants. As can be seen in Figure 1 below, in her analysis—and again, she examined just the media-reported incidents at McDonald's over the past three years, approximately 40 percent of all such occurrences happened in the late night (10 PM–4 AM) window. 

And McDonald's restaurants are open far longer than its national fast food rivals. According to the data on operating hours compiled by the National Employment Law Project for six of the largest fast food chains in the US, Figure 2 McDonald's restaurants—on average—were open a full two and a half hours longer than its nearest rival (Taco Bell), and a full three hours longer than Burger King locations. Worth noting also is the fact that two of these chains—Sonic and Chick-Fil-A do not have any 24 hour operations. 

And so the fact that McDonald's are everywhere, and open to everybody—and at many of their locations, at any time of day does provide a unique managerial challenge in their accessibility. 

And yes, the very accessibility of the chain's restaurants—they are everywhere, they are affordable, they are popular (still), and yes, they are almost always open—makes them uniquely suited to indeed be the site of all kinds of human behavior. The good, the bad, and yes, the ugly!

Yes, guys really do propose to their girlfriends at McDonald's...

... while some 100 year-olds really do want to have their birthday at McDonald's, simply because it is their favorite restaurant...

... and some people just really, really do like their McDonald's and go there almost everyday!

However, the same factors that make McDonald's so appealing, and yes, readily available, do also make the restaurant giant uniquely vulnerable to the worst side of human behavior to be exhibited there as well. Their very accessibility is, in fact, both the company's greatest strategic strength, and yet, its greatest vulnerability at the same time. 

In short, the downside of McDonald's accessibility is quite the management conundrum—and one with—as we have seen—all too real human consequences these days. And how McDonald's responds to the challenge of the perception that is out there—on social media, among people (and yes, who is not a potential McDonald's customer!), and among its current and potential workforce—that its restaurants are not safe—to "dine" at, to drive-thru, to visit, and to work at—is an existential-level threat. Rightly or wrongly, McDonald's has today become the nexus of a whole lot of America's issues! How the company's management reacts to this challenge—one that faces all fast food restaurants and really all service establishments, but which their brand has become the public face of the issue for many, many people—will go a long, long way toward establishing how restaurants, stores, and more will be managed into the future. They have a massive problem, and yet, a massive opportunity. How will—and should—they handle it?

Analysis

In all my years as a management professor and consultant, I can think of no one issue that is as vexing as the workplace safety problem facing not just McDonald's, but indeed the entire fast-food industry today. Indeed, the complex set of issues they face are not unique to their line of business, as today, any business, any office, any institution, any government agency, etc. can be the point where America—with all its problems—spills over into the American workplace.  Fast food restaurants—from Taco Bell to Burger King, to even, dare we say, Starbucks, have become the new "melting pot." They are accessible to all—location-wise, price-wise, and yes, time-wise, increasingly being open long hours, and yes, lastly, but by no means least, these restaurants are a place where folks can meet and have access to free Wifi! 

The issues involved in how do you go about having a safe restaurant, or store, or office, school... a safe anything are extremely complex. In the United States of 2019, poll after poll, survey after survey, article after article, and academic paper after academic paper have all shown that all of us are more stressed than ever before. We are "busier" (even if defining what is really "work" today is harder than ever before). We are stressed—over money, over family, over relationships, over kids, over our job(s), over health, over politics—seemingly over everything. We have become far more uncivil to one another online—and offline. We are more likely to be medicated—and armed. That is a dangerous mix—and from your local Walmart to your community hospital to, yes, even your corner Starbucks, all of this is a volatile cocktail sitting right next to a whole bunch of matches in the America of the present day.

All of this—and whatever unique idiosyncrasies we personally may have—is carried with each of us each and every time we enter a restaurant, whether it be in the drive-thru line at McDonald's, or at fine steakhouse with white linen tablecloths. Whether our role is as a server, a cook, a dishwasher, a manager, or even as a customer, when each of us encounters others in any public space these days, the potential is there for both a great interaction, and well, a not so pleasant one. 

And in McDonald's, and Wendy's, and Burger King's, and Popeyes', and Subway's, and Panda Express', and Chipotle's, and tens of thousands of fast food restaurants across America, literally millions and millions of worker-customer interactions take place each and every day. While we may not come away from every one of these encounters as an entirely satisfied customer, or as a worker feeling that they have done a great job, 97-98-99 percent of these transactions go—shall we say—"well enough." Yes, there can be "issues" that arise—even in the finest and most expensive of dining establishments and yes, even at "happy" places like Disney restaurants, or dare I say Chick-fil-A (where every customer interaction is to end with the employee famously saying, "My pleasure!"). 

In these same workplaces, workers and managers have to interact and work with one another. And in the restaurant setting, as is true in all of our jobs, the vast majority of the time, though we might well grumble about what "that guy" did or said later to a coworker, friend or spouse, the daily functions of all of our work lives go on without something rising to the level of—shall we say—an "incident."

The spillover of American problems into the workplace and into public places is not again—by any, any means—limited to only being a "McDonald's problem," or a "fast food problem." Arguments, confrontations, yelling, punching, throwing things, and having "throw downs," and yes most sadly, even shooting, does happen all too often seemingly everywhere today. However, as this article series has shown, these things do also seem to be happening at the some 14,000 McDonald's locations way too often. The hard numbers—both from the National Employment Law Project study and more—back that perception up. And the reality is that now, worker—and customer—safety is impacting the fast food giant in any number of both demonstrable and subtle ways. The bottom-line is this: McDonald's is seeing a continuing slide in sales, facing greater challenges in recruiting, and then retaining workers, and gaining a public perception—rightly or wrongly—as an increasingly unsafe place to eat at, to work at, to take your kids to, and heck, even to use the drive-thru lane(s). 

Is there an overall solution to the problem of worker, manager, and customer safety at McDonald's—or really, any workplace today? The answer unfortunately is no, and that is unlikely to ever really change. That is not being a pessimist. Rather, it is being a realist. You simply cannot separate the problems that we face in terms of safety anywhere—in a school, in a mall, in an airport, or in a restaurant—from the overall problems America has in terms of the coarseness, often uncivil nature of our culture today. "Stuff" will—unfortunately—continue to happen. And it may indeed happen with even greater frequency as we move forward. However, that is why it is incumbent on managers of any sized firm—whether its McDonald's with its 14,000 domestic locations or Joe who owns a single Subway franchise—to take what proactive measures they can to help prevent—and mitigate—the bad effects of this spillover of America's larger problems—incivility, guns, stress, etc.—into America's work and public spaces.

Over and over and over again however, the response of McDonald's top management has been, shall we say, surprising—at best—in response to this challenge. 

One complicating factor is certainly that McDonald's - the company—does not have—or choose to have—absolute control over how things operate on a day-to-day basis in its thousands and thousands of locations in the United States, let alone those spread across much of the world. This is because what we think of as "McDonald's" is largely an amalgamation of franchisees operating under the well-known identity and methods of the "Golden Arches." McDonald's has a large percentage of franchisee-owned stores, which currently stands in excess of 80 percent, with a company goal of reaching fully 95 percent of all domestic American locations, simply pushing a button, and making things happen across all of a mammoth chain of 14,000 restaurants on anything is a complex managerial task. The company has experienced notable problems—and resistance—from its franchisees, particularly powerful individual ones and groups of franchise holders—in making changes to its stores, its kitchens, and its menu.   

The National Employment Law Project's research report goes in-depth as to how the McDonald's current franchise agreement spells out any number of things that the franchisee must do to be in compliance with the company's exacting standards:

As the franchisor, McDonald’s exerts a high level of control over its franchisees’ operations, with detailed rules for all aspects of store design and operations, including required operating procedures, methods of inventory control, bookkeeping and accounting, days and hours of operation, business practices and policies, and advertising, among others.

However, when it comes to issues involving workplace safety, the company has—particularly for a corporate giant with the large number of locations and employees that it operates—a surprising lack of standards when it comes to such a basic issue. The NELP report highlights how from areas such as employee training to cash handling to customer service to incident response, McDonald's does not presently have the formal standardized policies and protocols in place to adequately safeguard the well-being of their workers, managers, and yes, their customers. 

After the OSHA complaint was filed against the company, McDonald's issued a statement in response to coverage of its workplace safety issues

“We believe every person working in McDonald’s restaurants deserves to do so in a safe and respectful environment and, along with our franchisees, have invested in programs that promote safe environments for customers and crew members. This includes clear policies that strictly prohibit violence, threats of violence and other conduct that jeopardizes or harms the safety of employees and others in the workplace.”

And in the wake of the twin hits of the NELP report and the OSHA complaint, the company told Bloomberg that it will be "rolling out national training programs in its company-owned restaurants this year focused on workplace safety" (and if you will recall, that is an ever-shrinking—and small—portion of McDonald's domestic U.S. operations).

So, in the end, the question that any restaurant or store proprietor should be asking is a simple one: What can be done, today? Well, it is a matter of resources. And yes, a corporate giant like McDonald's (or Taco Bell, or Starbucks, or a host of other national chains) has far more resources that can—and should—be thrown at a problem as critical as this one than Joe or Josephine can as a small businessperson. However, a good place to start for really any service business would be the recommendations offered by Deborah Berkowitz of the National Employment Law Project for McDonald's. They are just common sense for the world in which we live. Her recommendations for provided below fall into two categories:

  1. Engineering and Environmental Controls, and
  2. Administrative and Work Practice Controls.

Area 1: Engineering and Environmental Controls

  • The following engineering and environmental controls should be implemented across the McDonald’s system:
    • Improve visibility such that signs and other marketing materials located in windows do not block the line of sight for workers to the outside, or from authorities looking into the stores;
    • Install a comprehensive surveillance and security system that includes video cameras, alarms, and panic buttons that all workers can access, along with drop safes—that employees cannot access—to limit the availability of cash, and ensure that these security measures cover all work areas, including back entrances and trash receptacles;
    • Install safer drive-thru windows that prevent unauthorized individuals from entering a store. In high-risk locations, such as stores with a history of robberies or assaults, and stores located in high-crime areas, install bullet-resistant drive-thru windows or pass-through windows.
    • Prominently display security signage, such as cash-drop policies or CCTV monitoring, at all doors and front counters; and
    • Implement store design elements that create barriers between employees and customers, thereby controlling customers’ access to the kitchen, and other employee-only areas.

Area 2: Administrative and Work Practice Controls

  • Administrative and work practice controls can include the following strategies:
    • Ensure that all workers are properly trained on established policies and procedures;
    • Adopt proper emergency procedures for employees to use in case of robbery or a security breach. These standard operating procedures should include guidance on when to call the police, when to trigger an alarm, and how to file charges after an incident;
    • Increase staffing whenever possible, especially in stores with a history of robberies or in high-crime areas; and
    • Require workers to report all assaults or threats of assault to a supervisor, and keep a log of such incidents.

Finally, what we really need to have is not simply a single conversation within one company about how we do better in terms of workplace safety. No, we really need to have a national dialogue on the subject of the larger issue: how do we balance our needs for accessibility in public establishments and with a modern American populace that is perhaps losing some of our civility? That is a complex question—and one that yes, deserves a great deal of attention, well beyond any one restaurant chain—even one as giant and omnipresent—and yes, accessible—as McDonald's!

In conclusion then, as a management professor and consultant, I can cite to you a whole stream of research that touches on the matter at hand—everything from the very practical customer service literature to things as seemingly esoteric, but necessary, to grease the wheels of society—as organizational citizenship and pro-social behaviors. While some may look back nostalgically—through yes, rose-colored glasses—back to bygone eras, the present day America is what we have—for all our warts and faults. And so in the words of the great philosopher, yes, the fictional George Costanza: "We have a society here!" And in the America of 2019—and likely the America of 2029, 2039, and beyond, the challenge will be for managers in all organizations to act in a proactive manner to help make the work experience—and yes, the customer experience—the best that it can be in the present day!

About David Wyld

David Wyld ([email protected]) is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness. He is the founder and publisher of both The IDEA Publishing (The Best in News, Information and Content Marketing) and Modern Business Press (The Best in Academic Journals).


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