Commentary: Time and punishment in the pizzeria

Aug. 9, 2006

A recent article in an Australian newspaper told of a Domino's Pizza shop manager who landed in hot water for telling employees they'd have to work five minutes without pay for every minute they were late to work. The crew also would owe him five free minutes per violation of the store's uniform policy. According to the Herald Sun article, a poster displaying the store's workplace policy warned staff that if you have a problem with the policy, "you know where the door is."

When the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Union caught wind of the policy, the poster was removed and franchisee group, Domino's Pizza Australia & New Zealand, caught hell. The company issued a statement saying such labor practices weren't its policy and that the store manager would be counseled "on proper ways to manage young staff."

Nice way of saying, "We're going to jerk his tail for that one."

Frankly, I'd rather have seen them say, "Though our manager made a mistake, we do support his efforts to ensure staff timeliness." Why? Because I side with him — not in method, because such reprimands are illegal, but in principle. Lateness at work backs up production, which can screw up orders and frustrate customers, and a store manager needs some leverage to correct the situation.

But is threatening to work employees off the clock the solution?

I know of at least one instance when that worked.

Been there, done that

If you can believe it, my own experience with such a manager was much harsher.

A head chef I

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worked for was injured and out of work for a month, so the corporate chef at the multi-restaurant company where I worked had to fill in. His name was Frank, and he was no stuffed-shirt desk-bound type. He was a solid, proficient and professional chef, who could work the line as well or better than any of us.

On a Monday, his first day at our restaurant, several cooks showed up around 15 minutes after their scheduled time — just like always. Problem was Frank already was there, and he was steaming mad. Immediately, he laid down the law: "For every minute you're late tomorrow, you owe me one hour off the clock."

The gaping mouths and furrowed brows were met with Frank's cold, "Don't mess with me" stare. It was clear this was not a matter for debate.

The very next morning, Frank was waiting at the back door and staring at his watch as some of the cooks and dishwashers strolled in late. Their excuses ranged from delinquent city buses to uncooperative children to traffic jams, but Frank was unmoved. His responses were blunt: "Tomorrow, you take an earlier bus. ... You, leave 15 minutes earlier. And you, don't give him a ride if he's not going to be ready and make you late."

All of us owed him hours off the clock, and Frank's "detention" started that afternoon regardless of prior engagements.

The next morning, Frank was at the back door again, brown eyes darting between our faces and his blue-faced Seiko. Some sprinted in just under the wire, another came in at 8:01, and one fool pushed his luck by arriving 10 minutes late. With the steely glare of a drill sergeant, Frank said to him firmly, "You're not working today. Go home and come back on time tomorrow if you want your job."

By Thursday, everyone was arriving five to 10 minutes early.

Frank's next push was on kitchen uniform standards: No more white sneakers or baseball caps, only black shoes and proper white chef's/cook's hats were acceptable. To ensure accountability for our individual stations, he had us fill out inventory and production sheets and turn them in to him by 9 a.m. Lateness, sloppiness and inaccuracy, as you might expect, weren't tolerated.

If this all sounds Draconian, be assured it was. But surprisingly, the staff realized the benefits of this regimen quickly. In just a matter of days, the staff took on a new air of professionalism: one born partially out of fear of Chef Frank, but mostly out of a renewed respect for our jobs. This was a fine-dining restaurant, Frank reminded us, and people were paying serious cash to eat there. We needed to give them what they paid for.

Staffers weren't the only ones who changed. Frank did as well, and

If this all sounds Draconian, be assured it was. But surprisingly, the staff realized the benefits of this regimen quickly. In just a matter of days, the staff took on a new air or professionalism: one born partially out of fear of Chef Frank, but mostly out of a renewed respect for our jobs.

it earned our respect in surprising ways. By his second week in charge, he'd taken on a strangely paternal role that included making and serving us — yes, we sat and he served — breakfast every morning, an act in which he clearly took pleasure. As we devoured our steaming plates of bacon and eggs, he'd ask about our lives outside of work and tell us stories about the strictures of life growing up as a son of hardworking Chinese immigrants. "You think I'm tough, you should see my dad!" he'd tell us. When the plates were empty, he'd discuss that day's game plan and send us to the kitchen.

After a few days of such unexpected treatment, his intended lessons started sinking into my hard skull:

  • When you're the boss, firmness must precede friendliness.
  • Treat this job seriously, and the company will treat you well.
  • Respect this restaurant's time, and its owners will reward you with a regular paycheck.
  • When we work as a team, we accomplish great things together.

I don't recall whether I knew then that Frank's off-the-clock time demand was illegal. There certainly wasn't an employee's union to inform me of my rights — much less do anything to boost my fine $4-per-hour wage. But as I look back, I'm glad there wasn't (though I certainly could have used a raise). I might have missed a very valuable lesson.

I know differently today, of course, but that doesn't change my feelings on the matter. I wouldn't trade that experience for a cushier one, no matter how illegal or unfair. I saw its positive effects on my peers; the results that lasted long beyond Chef Frank's month-long tour of duty. In fact, when the head chef returned to his job, he was startled by the changes in the staff; he sensed this was not the same group he left behind.

When he asked how everything had gone with Frank at the helm, he was genuinely shocked to hear we liked him being there. He knew Frank was a task master, and he figured we'd hate working for him. But he saw firsthand that Frank's setting fair and logical boundaries — limits that benefited the business and ultimately the customer — was necessary to get us focused on something other than ourselves. He knew then, as I know now, that it was a lesson few employers have the guts to teach.

Topics: Commentary , Operations Management

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