Back to Black Joanne Black

Front-line staff in fast-food chains can have as much ef­fect on the bot­tom line as a CEO.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - JOANNE BLACK

Chipo­tle, the Mex­i­can-food chain that has more than 2300 restau­rants, is the lat­est com­pany to de­mon­strate why the huge gap be­tween chief-ex­ec­u­tive salaries and those of front-line staff is not only un­con­scionable, but also bad for busi­ness.

Nom­i­nally, the furore about Chipo­tle is about racism. Re­ally, it is not. The story be­gan when a young black man, Ma­sud Ali, posted on so­cial me­dia a video of him­self be­ing de­nied ser­vice at a Chipo­tle restau­rant un­til he had paid – con­trary to the store’s nor­mal prac­tice of cus­tomers pay­ing after they have re­ceived their meals. When he de­mands to know why the change of pol­icy, Ali is told by the store man­ager – in a friendly but firm tone – “You’ve got to pay be­cause you never have money when you come in here.” Plainly, Ali is known to the staff for “do­ing a run­ner”. Theft is an­other name for it. But Ali called Chipo­tle out for racism and the store man­ager was promptly fired. Posts on so­cial me­dia – since deleted – re­vealed that Ali has boasted of eat­ing with­out pay­ing.

Not long ago there was a to-do at Star­bucks when a store man­ager de­clined to give a black man the code to un­lock a toi­let door, hav­ing just given the code to a white man. Nei­ther man had bought any­thing. In many US cities and sub­urbs there are no pub­lic toi­lets, so peo­ple, home­less or not, will use the re­strooms in stores and restau­rants. This is a ser­vice for cus­tomers, but for oth­ers, ac­cess might be de­nied. That does not ex­cuse or ex­plain racism, but it does mean that low-paid front-line staff are con­stantly deal­ing with so­ci­ety’s prob­lems.

In all the re­cent cases that have made head­lines, a big com­pany (Chipo­tle has more than 60,000 staff and men­tions in last year’s an­nual re­port that none are unionised) has suf­fered dam­ag­ing pub­lic­ity.

Chief-ex­ec­u­tive salaries are jus­ti­fied in part be­cause the de­ci­sions they make af­fect the prof­itabil­ity of the com­pa­nies they run. How­ever, a kitchen hand who ac­ci­den­tally con­tam­i­nates food, or a server who is racist, has at least as much po­ten­tial to sink the com­pany’s share price as the CEO. The big­gest dif­fer­ence be­tween them is in the pay and ben­e­fits (health in­sur­ance in par­tic­u­lar) that each of them re­ceives. And a CEO would not be sacked for dar­ing to sug­gest that a cus­tomer pays for his meal.

This month, US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump awarded seven Medals of Free­dom, the high­est civil­ian hon­our in the US. By a ra­tio of 4:3, the liv­ing re­cip­i­ents out­num­bered the dead.

I un­der­stand the post­hu­mous award­ing of medals to civil­ians and peo­ple in the armed ser­vices who died com­mit­ting an act of brav­ery. No one would quib­ble with that. I even un­der­stand post­hu­mous awards for peo­ple who died while still un­der­tak­ing the job or vol­un­tary ser­vice that earned them the medal. The late Jus­tice An­tonin Scalia, who was still serv­ing on the US Supreme Court when he died in 2016, was one of the three post­hu­mous re­cip­i­ents hon­oured by Trump.

But the other two were en­ter­tainer Elvis Pres­ley, who, un­less you be­lieve re­ports that he has been seen wait­ing on ta­bles in Ten­nessee, died in 1977, and base­ball great Babe Ruth, who died 70 years ago. I strug­gle to find mean­ing in hand­ing gongs to Pres­ley’s and Ruth’s de­scen­dants decades after the men’s deaths. Both were idolised in their life­times so it is not as though their great­ness has only just been dis­cov­ered.

It feels to me as though the awards are mostly about the de­sire of a politi­cian to be as­so­ci­ated with pop­u­lar he­roes, even if he has to dig them up to do it.

I strug­gle to find mean­ing in hand­ing gongs to Elvis Pres­ley’s de­scen­dants decades after his death.

“Sorry, I can’t even stand talk­ing to the peo­ple I know.”

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