Wahaca got a lot of unwanted publicity earlier this week after tweet from a customer claimed that staff were having their pay docked to cover the costs of customers who’d walked out without paying. 

The tweet went viral, Wahaca were slow to respond and didn’t seem 100% clear on their story.

Most of the coverage focused on the lacklustre response from the Wahaca PR team, but from my perspective there might be a couple of lessons from this episode for other People Directors of restaurant chains.

  1. Don’t ignore all those policies… they may be dull, they may have sat on the shelf for years, but the stuff in the employee handbook will come back to bite you! Amidst all the clamour around employee experience there’s a real danger that People teams lose sight of how much the basics matter to employees. Bee’s just written a great blog on creating personas for employee experience projects, but I’d challenge you to think of anyone who works in a restaurant who doesn’t want good pay and to be treated fairly. Think of all those employment contracts and  policies as the HR equivalent of technical debt. You can’t ignore it forever. Far better to be paying it down regularly by simplifying things and making sure they fit your culture and the experience you want to create for employees.
  2. We all like to fix a problem as quickly as possible and when businesses are under pressure, this drive for short-term solutions becomes even more pervasive. Sales are down… cut labour. Concerns about allergies… spend more time auditing kitchens. Shortfall in the till… take it out of staff wages. The problem is that these linear solutions don’t fix the underlying systemic problems. In fact, if you over focus on these things, you’ll make the overall health of the system worse! As a general rule, successful restaurant brands spend more on labour than their competitors, and they see their teams as a driver of service and sales, not as an opportunity for greater efficiency. They obsess about great tasting food rather than the risk of poisoning someone and they work on the assumption that their people want to do the right thing, not that they’re colluding with friends to steal food. 

I suspect the disturbing thing for some People Directors in the industry is the feeling that it could easily have been them. If that’s you, my advice is:

  • Get clear on your company narrative, culture and values and understand how this aligns with your value proposition to the employees you want to attract, engage and retain in your business. 
  • Make a plan for addressing your ‘technical debt’ so you can update and simplify your policies and make them user friendly.
  • When problems arise, take a systemic perspective and resist the urge for knee jerk reactions.