Here’s a little story about a manager who missed the mark by a mile and showed me what truly bad leadership and crisis management really was.
Sadly, he wasn’t the first, nor the last to share that lesson with me, but this story remains his life lesson to me and was taught in the shape of one solitary burger.
A Hot Summer’s Day
It was 1995 in the heat of November in Adelaide, South Australia, the exact date of the very last of the Formula One Australian Grand Prix events to be held in Adelaide.
Adelaide was absolutely teeming with a reported 210,000 sweaty motorsport spectators, and I was lucky enough to be working at the biggest fast-food restaurant near the street circuit. We knew the day would be huge (or as a South Australian would say, “Heaps Good”), and instead of our regular crew manning one double-sided bench for the famous beef burgers, we had two extra crews from the outer suburbs helping us out on extra tables, all of us on double-shifts. It was incredibly hot in the burger room, and it was all we could do not to sweat all over the burgers we were making while we slaved away in the heat.
Now, I say I was lucky. Yes, I was lucky that I had a job. But not so lucky that I earned more than AU$7 for each of my hours. Minimum wages were all that place paid, with an extra few cents thrown in for long service, and they had a knack for firing anyone who reached 18. Well, not firing exactly, as that was illegal, but simply not scheduling any more shifts for the 18-year-olds if they weren’t a shift manager. A few months after celebrating maturity, these young adults eventually realised they’d never be rostered again and just stopped coming in to check the board (yes, no electronic shift schedules were given out in the 90s).
We weren’t as lucky as the rival fast-food burger chain, who gave their staff free lunches. Our company gave us a half-hour lunch break so we could hide our uniform and stand out in line with the regular crowd of customers and pay for our lunch, rarely even having a moment to eat it afterwards.
But we were lucky when the bread deliveries came in, from one of South Australia’s most-loved bakeries, Balfours. Those drivers used to deliver their load and bring in a few loaves of yesterday’s bread for us. These loaves were strictly to be given only to workers who didn’t live with their parents and therefore had to pay for their own food. That bread helped us starving students out quite a bit, and each loaf represented about half an hour’s wages to us — it was very much appreciated!
We weren’t lucky when it came to overtime, as the shift managers were forced to fudge our hours to ensure we never got paid any. We often got told not to clock out as the manager had already clocked us out hours beforehand and claimed we started earlier than we did. Yes, this place was too cheap to pay a few extra cents in overtime to hardworking teens. Great for morale.
And finally, we were actually lucky to get paid taxis home at 3am after cleaning up vomit in the toilets on the weekend. That’s one thing this place did do right. Not the vomit, the taxis.
Emergencies All Round
Now, while racer Mika Häkkinen, the Flying Finn, was busy getting a spontaneous roadside tracheotomy and being air-lifted right over our heads to the Royal Adelaide Hospital, we were busy making burgers for the enormous hungry crowds outside. People were lining up for hours to get our burgers, and the queue never stopped. Inside, we were all exhausted, but working hard to make the company’s owner a reported AU$1 for every burger sold, while we got our not-quite-$7-an-hour scraps. But it was a job.
Work was going smoothly until suddenly we hit a bit of a snag. Okay, a rather big one. You see, despite having extra staff and extra tables to work on, our burger patties and buns were only able to be cooked in the one machine, an enormous broiler that held about 5 patties and buns across in two conveyor-belts and kept a continuous stream of meat and bread dropping out the other end.
At least, that’s the idea. If the person in charge of loading the beef and burgers stops for a moment, it results in a pause in the production process. And when a pause like that happens at the main bottle-neck on the busiest day of our working lives, it’s not just a small problem. It’s an enormous waste of a few minutes of precious burger-making time.
For a couple of minutes, the entire burger room came to a halt while we waited for those buns and patties to come out. The poor boy who had paused in his broiler-stuffing role was mortified, but he couldn’t do a thing to fix the problem except resume his repetitive task and wait.
In comes the boss, absolutely furious because there are crowds of people waiting outside and no-one making orders in the burger room.
“Don’t you know we are committed to serving every customer within three minutes of them entering the doors?”
“Why aren’t you working?”
“What do you mean there’s no bread? No meat? This is a burger place!”
I recall him snarling in the faces of petrified teenagers and absolutely terrifying the poor lad at the broiler half to death for causing the issue in the first place.
It was then he chose to do the unforgivable.
He picked up an old bun and a piece of meat that had fallen on the floor, one that would normally have been cleaned up immediately, but we’d been too rushed off our feet to do so. He gave it to an unfortunate girl nearby and said: “Here’s some bread and meat. MAKE A BURGER”.
The whole room went silent as 30 horrified teens, who had been well trained in food hygiene, watched in appalled shock as the miserable girl stammered, mumbled, got screamed at, then started to cry as she made that awful burger.
Our famous beef burger, usually delicious, was wrapped up and sent out on its own to a hungry customer who paid good money only to receive contaminated food.
Meanwhile, that girl, who had been one of our best burger-makers, continued to cry and wanted to throw up. She quit very soon after that.
If we had all quit in disgust, what would that manager have done then?
What if we had told all the customers who were waiting?
We didn’t quit and we didn’t tell the customers because we were teenagers and scared for our jobs. But we should have.
No-one in that room will ever forget that terrible boss or that terrible burger.
I certainly learned a lot about running a fast food restaurant by watching the management in that place. I also learned a lot about hard work, mistreatment, and why owning the restaurant is always better than working in it.
And after 25 years, I have not forgotten that burger and I probably never will.
… And then there was the incident with the eggs that finally made me quit. But that’s a story for another day.
Think carefully about your response when handling a crisis in your business. It may not be as big a deal as you thought, and your response might make employees want to quit, and make customers not want to come back.
And always keep your eye on the quality of your products.
PS. This really is not fiction. Some poor sod actually ate that burger.