Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Foreign notions

The balance of trade in restaurant ideas has long been out of whack for American chains, with U.S. brands exporting far more business know-how than they’ve received in return. But even savants here in the States can occasionally glean a lesson from their brethren afield. And so it is with two recent developments beyond our borders.

For the first, we transport to Britain, where McDonald’s has once again engineered an intriguing new HR practice. The United Kingdom is where the chain developed the ground-breaking policy of allowing families to sign up for a single unit-level position, so teenaged siblings can fill in for one another when school or social schedules conflict with work commitments. The idea is that the family can find a member to work the shift far more readily than the restaurant can find a stand-in. The set-up allows the family to handle the scheduling—in essence, shifting that authority from a unit manager to a household.

Now comes word that McDonald’s has secured government authority to bestow the equivalent of high school advance-placement credits on some employees. Management-level staffers who complete the training needed to run a unit will be awarded a “basic staff management” qualification, which some colleges or universities would recognize as proof of advanced high school study. The program, apparently a pet project of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, is intended to blaze a new, recognized path of higher education. In the process, it could elevate perceptions of restaurant work and hopefully bolster management retention for McD’s.

The chain has said it doesn’t intend to import the program to the U.S. But the burger giant has certainly shown an appreciation of education’s recruitment and retention benefits on this side of the pond. Several years ago, McDonald’s Corp. was given accreditation to grant college credits for courses taken at Hamburger U., the management training center on the grounds of the chain’s Oak Brook, Ill., headquarters.

A good case study for Hamburger U. enrollees would be what reportedly happened at a franchised Second Cup coffee outlet north of the border, in the heart of Tim Hortons country. For reasons that were not revealed, the men’s room of the restaurant was chosen by heroin addicts as a choice location to shoot up, as management surmised from the needles and syringes that were left behind. With the apparent blessing of the Montreal police department, the restaurant installed a fake security camera in the bathroom and trained its unseeing lens on the lone stall, hoping to discourage illicit behavior. The desperados using the place to shoot up would think they were being filmed.

Unfortunately, so did patrons who used the bathroom for more acceptable reasons. The well-intentioned effort to protect them from dirty needles or loitering unsavory sorts backfired into a public relations scandal, even though no customers were actually filmed.

Second Cup reportedly directed the franchisee to remove the camera.

The kerfuffle arose as restaurant cameras are becoming as prevalent in restaurants as spoons. Some operators use them as a way of letting the kitchen know if a table is ready for its next course. Others use it for security reasons. But the devices may not be the best equipment to install in the bathroom, even if they’re bogus.

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