Merge's Blog

Leadership lessons from the Papa Johns’ debacle

You might have already read about the public relations nightmare that Papa Johns, the international fast-food pizza chain, faced recently.  But if you haven’t …

Last Monday, on January 7, Minhee Cho stopped in to pick up a pizza at a Manhattan location of this chain.  The young cashier rang in the sale, and then typed in a description on the receipt to identify the customer.  The description – “lady chinky eyes”.  Ms. Cho, not surprisingly, was a tad bit offended and posted a picture of the receipt on her Twitter account with the following text: Hey @PapaJohns just FYI my name isn’t “lady chinky eyes”.  Also not surprisingly, the photo went viral.  In fact, last I checked, it had been viewed 244,843 times.

Now to be fair to Papa Johns, once they realized what was happening, they stepped in.  The employee at the franchise location was terminated the next day, and the company issued a public apology.  But this unfortunate situation raises three issues that I think leaders everywhere should take to heart.

  1. Your customers talk to one another.  And in today’s age of social media, what they say, good or bad, travels faster than the speed of light.  If you’re going to have any hope of managing your brand (rather than having it take on a life of its own), then you have to keep your ear to the ground and constantly seek out what your stakeholders are saying about you.  Let’s not forget that your employees are your brand.  Despite the fact that this was an employee of a franchisee, s/he was wearing the Papa Johns’ uniform and standing under the Papa Johns’ sign.  As far as customers were concerned, s/he was an employee.  Your employees represent your organization.  Period.  Now to give credit where credit is due, Papa Johns got that!
  2. When things go wrong, act decisively and swiftly.  Again, Papa Johns did a good job here.  You might question whether firing the employee was the right thing to do, but they acted quickly, and perhaps more importantly, they apologized publicly.
  3. Having said that, in my opinion, firing one employee is “window-dressing”.  The real issue here is one of cultural awareness and sensitivity.  And in today’s global economy, we need to make sure that all our employees “get it”.  Apparently, the manager of this Papa Johns location blamed the “unfortunate incident” on the influence of “modern culture” or “hip-hop culture”.  I think that answer is just a little too easy.  I would suggest that both the employee AND the manager could benefit from sensitivity training.  And before someone says it, this isn’t about being politically correct.  It’s about understanding that the colleagues we work with, the clients and customers we serve, the vendors that we buy from, are all people who deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.  Making racial slurs is not acceptable, just as it is not okay to disparage those who have different points of view or make ridicule someone who has a physical or mental disability.  When we create respectful workplaces, we create environments that are productive and positive.  And the primary responsibility for creating such an environment rests firmly on the shoulders of leaders everywhere.  While the store manager at this Papa Johns location has promised to have his employees attend such training, I still think Papa Johns as an corporate entity needs to take a more active role in that department.

What do you think about this whole scenario?  What else could (or should) leaders everywhere be learning from this disturbing situation?

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