Learning on the McJob

Buffalo B-school prof Jerry Newman talks about going undercover as a burger slinger to find out more about fast-food workers and managers

Jerry Newman, distinguished professor at University at Buffalo (N.Y.) School of Management, traded in his blackboard for a cardboard hat for 14 months in the name of research. He went undercover to work behind the counter at seven fast-food restaurants, including McDonald's (MCD) and Burger King (BKC). What he discovered is that the world of drive-through windows and fries is full of hard-working, honest people trying to make ends meet.

In his recently released book, My Secret Life on the McJob (McGraw-Hill, 2007), Newman focuses on the tips he gleaned from fast-food managers. But, he says, his book isn't your traditional leadership bible à la someone like Jack Welch. This book, rather, is about what Newman calls "followership," a look at management from the perspective of the workers. If you ever wondered what your staff thinks about you, then this is a must read—if you can stomach the good with the bad.

Already, many of the fast-food companies featured in the book have Newman traveling in the U.S. and Europe to give speeches about what he unearthed on the McJob. He recently discussed his discoveries with BusinessWeek.com reporter Francesca Di Meglio. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:

What motivated you to write this book?

When my youngest daughter was 16 years old, we were out on a Buffalo street on a Sunday morning for a driving lesson, and I survived. As a reward, we went to a fast-food restaurant for breakfast sandwiches. She opened up the sandwich and sticking out of it was what appeared to be a condom.

I brought it up to the counter, and the manager came over. I said, "What's this condom doing in the middle of the sandwich?" He held up his pinky finger and said, "Sir, that's not a condom. It's the tip of a sanitary latex glove." I replied, "I don't care what it is. What's it doing in my sandwich?" Then, he said, "We'd be glad to give you a coupon for 10 sandwiches." I said, "Wait a minute! You gave me a sandwich with what looks like a condom in it and then you tried to bribe me with 10 more of those same sandwiches." That launched this whole project.

Did the experience meet your expectations?

I was trying not to have expectations, but that's really hard to do. Fast food is under attack right now. If you listen to Eric Schlosser [author of Fast Food Nation (Harper Perennial, 2005)], everything in the world is the fault of fast food. What really surprised me the most is that this brush that's painting fast food as evil is also painting fast-food workers as bad. I really object to that.

These folks are intelligent and hard working. An executive from a pharmaceutical company once told me that when he sees fast-food work on somebody's résumé, he views it as a plus. He knows the applicant is reliable, because if he's not reliable, he would have gotten fired from a fast-food place. He knows the applicant can handle pressure because lunchtime at a fast-food restaurant is sheer insanity. If you can survive and do that job for six months, you have good skills to launch any career.

There's something to be learned from fast food. McDonald's, Burger King, and A&W all launched in the 1950s, which gives them lots of experience (see BusinessWeek.com, 2/5/07, "McDonald's 24/7"). They've been thinking about ways to manage with low costs for much longer than most places.

What can people learn about business from this book?

What most people know of fast-food work is people singing, "Have it your way," or Kevin Federline dreaming about being a musician in commercials. They don't see that behind the counter, there's a lot of hard work. The first thing to learn is that good managers lay things out for employees, and they're honest about the reality of the job.

Second, you need a consistent manager. He stands for the same things every day. If he's in the back room and something happens in the front, I know what he would do, so I know what I should do. Don't give me a manager who brings his problems from home into the workplace and takes it out on me simply because he's unhappy.

Third is the old saw—recognition. Good fast-food managers are what I call ego architects. They figure out what the load-bearing beam is and find a way to build up that characteristic in you. They're the opposite of ego undertakers, who identify your biggest fear and prey upon that to break you down.

The fourth skill you can learn about is building relationships. You're getting paid for your job, but that's not enough to keep you going day after day. The manager I had at Burger King spent an hour interviewing me, whereas everyone else spent 15 minutes at the most. She said she was looking to see if I fit with her workers.

She knew she had a good crew and low turnover. She had workers who were sarcastic and liked to rag on each other, and she was looking for people who could take that and give it out, too. I happened to like the people I worked with in that place, as opposed to the other Burger King where it wasn't until my fourth day that my co-workers learned my name.

For the most part, the women managers were better than the men (see BusinessWeek.com, 3/8/06, "Women Leading the Way in Startups"). The reason is—and there's research to back this up—men tend to be all about the process and getting the job done, and women are a little bit more empathetic. They realize money isn't the only thing that sustains you.

What will you bring into the classroom as a result of these experiences?

The problem isn't thinking of things to bring in. It's getting students to not be tired of fast-food examples. I talk about hiring new workers, hiring for fit, and training. Training videos for fast-food places often have a young woman in a clean uniform with her hair perfectly coiffed. She makes a burger at a leisurely pace.

When I'm putting together a burger, I have to get that Whopper done in 25 seconds or I'm fired. I have grease all over my clothes, and perspiration on my forehead. So, I challenged my MBA class to put together a training video on making a Whopper. My students made a film that was so good that I sent it to Burger King. I never heard from Burger King, but it was right in the middle of an IPO at the time.

Did you find the work hard?

During lunch rush, you're killing yourself to get food out the door because people are lining up. I worked lunch rush on I-95, the main corridor in Florida, in the middle of March, when people started heading down south for spring break. The traffic in those stores was outrageous. When you get through a lunch rush, you're proud of your accomplishment (see BusinessWeek.com, 2/5/07, "Now That's Fast Food").

What would you change about the fast-food industry?

Making the leadership consistent across shifts is what I would change. You didn't have the same quality of leadership across stores in the same chain or across shifts in the same store. I wrote this story in the book about working in the Burger King, which was the best place in which I had worked. Fully expecting that every shift would be run very well, I hired one of my MBA students to work undercover and take the afternoon/evening shift after me.

Three days later, he told me about what I call Shake, Rattle, and Roll. When things were slow, the workers on that shift put their head under the shake machine, turned down the spigot, and the first person to get brain freeze lost. That was entirely different from my shift.

What kind of reaction have you gotten from the corporate headquarters of these eateries?

One of the things that fast food does better than anyone else I've ever seen is give feedback to workers. Once I made a Whopper without putting four pickles on it, and a woman with whom I worked patiently said to me, "Jerry, it has to have four pickles. It's supposed to be the same in Boulder, Colo., as it is in Biloxi, Miss." She told me what was supposed to be done and why in a positive way.

I've come to discover that headquarters from fast-food restaurants really like feedback, too. The culture is one of feedback. It's not all positive feedback. When I went to McDonald's headquarters and I met CEO Jim Skinner, he didn't like everything I had to say. He didn't appreciate the title of the book for its use of "McJob," which is a word most people view negatively. I'm defending the word McJob because the people who do the McJob are doing a darn good McJob.

Any chance you'll be leaving your professor gig for a career in fast food?

You have a sense of humor. I will say that this assignment has absolutely energized me. In some ways, I had done it all. Then I worked on this project and saw that there are so many kinds of fun research projects out there.

Maybe I will do this again. I don't know if it will be fast food. Last Saturday, my class and I were doing a project on hair salons. One of my students jokingly said I was going to go undercover at Supercuts (RGS). The whole class started laughing, and I started thinking, "I wonder if I could go undercover at Supercuts." Don't be surprised if you see me working as a reporter someday at BusinessWeek.

What do you want us to consider the next time we order a burger and fries?

That burger that arrives to you in less than two minutes is put together by somebody who is doing the very best job he can.