When a Papa John's employee referenced a customer as "Lady Chinky Eyes" on her receipt in January, she posted a photo of that receipt on her Twitter account, where it was then viewed more than 25,000 times within hours.
Papa John's didn't have a choice but to spring into immediate action, issuing an apology to the customer and terminating the employee.
The company also reached out to its broad social media base with a statement that said: "We were extremely concerned to learn of the receipt issue in New York. This act goes against our company values, and we've confirmed with the franchisee that this matter was addressed immediately and that the employee is being terminated. We are truly sorry for this customer's experience."
Because of the immediacy social media presents, gone are the days of "we're looking into it" as a response to a misstep like the Papa John's incident. And with discrimination claims at a 45-year high in 2010, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, its likely social media is playing a larger role in bringing issues of discrimination to the forefront.
Rhonda Sanderson, founder of Sanderson & Associates PR firm, said Papa John's did exactly what it should have done to control the damage from that single customer's Tweet.
"Social media has changed the game and speed is of the essence in a case like this," she said. "Companies now not only need to apologize, but also outline what they're going to do next, and by firing that employee, that's exactly what Papa John's did."
Companies also are smart to reiterate what they're doing right; for example, mentioning any employee training that has been conducted or business policies put into place relative to an incident.
Customers are likely to be more forgiving of a company if these types of incidents are isolated.
"Consumers recognize that this is a broad franchised system that includes entry level employees making minimum wage. They'll get over it unless it happens multiple times and becomes a pattern," Sanderson said.
Papa John's is hardly alone in having to clean up a culturally insensitive mess. In January, a Georgia Starbucks was called out on a popular blog called "Angry Asian Man," after an employee drew slanted eyes on Korean customers' drinks. And in December, a Chick-fil-A employee named two customers "Ching" and "Chong" on their receipts (that employee was dismissed immediately).
"Most of the time, it's young, bored kids taking these jobs for $8 an hour and if they get fired, oh well, they just move on to the next $8 an hour job," Sanderson said. "If you pay bananas, you're going to get monkeys."
So while hiking the entry-level pay scale isn't a feasible option for most franchisors, putting a crisis plan into place and adding a personality test for prospective hires are. The latter, Sanderson said, will help weed out those with questionable behavior.
"Cultural intelligence" training
Coming up with crisis PR responses is only part of the strategy that restaurant chains should take when tackling culturally insensitive incidents – the reactionary part. They can also be proactive to lessen the chances of them happening in the first place.
More companies are working on that, said Gerald A. Fernandez, president of the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance. The organization's Cultural Intelligence Initiative is formally launching this year in response to the growing demand for formal training, and has already signed up big players such as Yum! Brands.
The initiative can be geared toward everyone in a franchised system, including hourly employees, and provides "multicultural coaching" and "risk mitigation" information. Most of the training focuses on the five demographics affected most by discrimination cases – blacks, Latinos, Asians, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) and members of religious groups. Fernandez said the MFHA also is developing curriculum specific to Pakistani Indians and other training can be added.
As an example of the information presented, Fernandez explained that not all blacks are African American.
"Also, don't call her Barbra, call her Mrs. Johnson. Many blacks are sensitive to being disrespected. There are cultural elements that drive people's behavior, and once you and your employees know that, you're going to be able to engage customers more effectively," he said.
Burger King is one brand that has implemented MFHA's cultural intelligence training.
"We've also incorporated diversity and inclusion (D&I) into our business strategies, not only because it makes good business sense, but because it is the right way to conduct business," said Shelia Dudley, director of inclusion and HR, Burger King Corp.
The burger chain's D&I efforts prioritize supplier diversity, workforce diversity, franchisees and guests/community.
Other brands have MFHA or other types of diversity training in place, as well. McDonald's, what Fernandez called the standard in the industry, has had a chief diversity officer in place for about 20 years, having extended from the affirmative action department created in 1980.
Subway, the largest restaurant chain in the world, outlines its customer service expectations, including how to create a positive atmosphere, greet customers with special needs and recognize non-verbal communications, in its operations guidelines. The company also has several online courses on diversity, culture and communications that are available to its 17,000-plus franchisees and their employees.
Anticipated growth in training initiatives
While other brands aren't where they want to be on this issue yet, Fernandez expects multicultural training efforts to explode within the next couple of years, attributing necessity.
"The restaurant industry, because we have the highest number of minority employees, is in the middle of this. If management doesn't have this as a priority or isn't proactively looking at ways to increase employees' cultural competency, it will hurt our industry and damage your brand," Fernandez said. "Multicultural intelligence will minimize your risk and maximize your top line because you'll be better serving your customers – all of them."
Read more about staffing and training.
Photo provided by OregonDOT.
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.