In case you missed it, McDonald’s is suffering from a serious case of food-in-mouth disease. Here’s the short of it:

The Crisis

McDonald’s in embroiled in an intense, messy, very public wage dispute controversy. McDonald’s workers are painting the company as a cold, heartless corporation that exploits its workers – valuing profits and shareholders over employees.  They’re passionately telling stories of working full time and still not being able to support a family of four – still falling under the federal poverty line. Employees are saying there are only two options: McDonald’s execs care, but are out of touch with reality – or they just don’t care about their employees’.

In response, McDonald’s set up a website to promote healthy living and well-being to its employees — a sure sign they care, right??  Except the website – “McResource Line” – keeps offering well-being and healthy-living tips to their employees  that is impractical, implausible, and often impossible for McDonald’s workers.

Earlier this year, they posted a sample budget that was so far off-base it made the financial counseling community explode in hysterical laughter. Y’know… because it included working more than one near-full-time-job and forgot to include basic budget items like gas, groceries, and childcare.  When the public roared, McDonald’s took down the budget and made some polite excuses.

When protest groups talked about the effects of financial stress on mental health, McDonald’s released an article on stress management. And their stress management tips included advice like “take a vacation two times a year,” “sing!” and “stop complaining.”  

When protesters talked about having to go into debt for medical expenses, McDonald’s debt management tips recommended returning unopened, unnecessary purchases.

But the latest fiasco is worse. This week – the same week McDonald’s employees in 100 cities are striking to protest low wages – McResource line posted advice on holiday tipping, pulled straight from Emily Post. You see, the holidays are a great time to show “appreciation” to the people who have provided you with services throughout the year! says the website. And then it gives advice on tipping people like your au pair, your nanny, your pool cleaner, massage therapist, and your personal trainer.

No. REALLY. Here’s a screen shot of the post. You can click here to see it larger and read more.

In response to the outcry, McDonald’s has removed the tipping advice and issued this statement:

“This is content provided by a third-party partner and quotes from one of the best-known etiquette gurus, Emily Post. We continue to review the resource and will ask the vendor to make changes as needed.” source

The Credibility Problem

Now, I don’t want to discuss the political rights and wrongs of union or labor disputes, or whether or not the workers are right to strike.

 I want to talk about about that statement, that attitude, and why McDonald’s is shooting itself in the foot -over and over and over again – with its employees and the public.

All of McDonald’s attempts to respond – to convince their employees and the public that they care – actually undermine their credibility because they aren’t practical or plausible for McDonald’s employees.  When your employees are protesting low-wages and inability to pay their bills, how could they afford a vacation? If they can’t pay their medical bills, how likely are they to have unopened, unnecessary purchases laying around that they can return? Let alone enough to reduce the strain of thousands and thousands of dollars in medical bills? I spent years as a financial counselor, folks – trust me. That doesn’t work.  Why would they trust an employer who gives them financial advice, but doesn’t seem to be aware of critical expenses like food and childcare?

And here’s the real kicker: why would would they trust an employer who responds to their outrage, frustration, and betrayal with a non-apology? That’s entire statement boils down to “It’s not really our fault because we outsourced all this employee well-being stuff. Plus, you shouldn’t be upset because Emily Post is really good at etiquette, everyone!”  

No one is questioning Ms. Post’s bona fides, McDonald’s. That’s not the point. They’re shocked at the irony of a company embroiled in a wage dispute telling their employees to show appreciation to service providers by paying them bonuses.  They’re questioning why a company that really cares about its employees would think they need etiquette advice – let alone advice about tipping service providers they can’t afford.  

Why It Happens & Why It Hurts

Deming taught that this happens when employers don’t take responsibility for both causing and solving problems. In lieu of really listening and trying to understand problems, they assume that the employees just aren’t trying hard enough – that they don’t know enough, aren’t motivated enough, or aren’t educated enough. Instead of improving the system, management tells employees that THEY are they problem – they need to change. So instead of acknowledging legitimate challenges facing their employees, they give superficial advice about problem they don’t understand. It’s essentially telling employees that the only reason they’re struggling is because they’re ignorant or have a bad attitude.

And each time it happens, it looks like McDonald’s doesn’t take employees’ concerns seriously. And their credibility dies a little. And the problem gets worse. Then they wonder why the wage dispute keeps escalating, and their McResource Line posts keep going viral.

The Solution

But it doesn’t have to be that way. McDonald’s could have won some serious public goodwill by issuing a response from the CEO that did these things:

1. Acknowledged why the post upset people.
I have heard stories from many employees who are struggling to make ends meet this season – I understand how upsetting and insensitive the post on tipping etiquette was to our McDonald’s employees. 

2. Took responsibility for the post and expressed remorse. 
Our company hired a third-party to write content for the site, and we failed to give them clear guidelines about our employees’ real-life concerns. We made a big mistake. We dropped the ball. I take personal responsibility for this mistake and I know I need to regain your trust.

3. Outlined how McDonald’s was going to make this better
I’m meeting with employee representatives tomorrow to discuss making the McResource Line program more relevant to your needs.
or From now on, I’m going to personally review every article for the McResource Line site before it goes up.
or even, We’re going to create a committee of you – our front-line employees from all over the country – to review content before it goes out; to make sure it really meets your needs.

And then they’d have to follow through.

Until McDonald’s demonstrates sincere, empathetic concern for its employees – until they convince the world that they are listening and really trying to understand and involve everyone in the solution – the situation will continue to escalate.

Problems can’t be solved without executives and managers who understand that employees are their partners to be engaged and respected – not problems to be managed. It’s a lesson every good manager has to learn – that most problems are caused by systems and processes, not people. And the people most hurt by poor systems are the people at the bottom. They can’t solve the problem alone because they have no power to change the system – and the need help from the top, from people who set and control systems and policies.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.