A double-doubly bad decision (Editor’s notes)

Firing will have a long-lasting and far-reaching effect on donut chain's image
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/29/2008

Thud. Did you hear that? Thud. Thud. There it is again. The closer you are to Oakville, Ont., the louder that thud is going to be.

That’s where the head office for Tim Hortons is located. And that thudding noise you’re hearing is the sound of your colleagues in the doughnut icon’s human resources department banging their heads against the walls in frustration.

I don’t know anyone in HR at Tim Hortons. But one can just imagine the looks on their faces, and the sinking feeling in the pit of their stomachs, when news of the “16-cent Timbit incident” broke. (

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The doughnut icon has worked hard to build one of Canada’s most recognizable and respected brands. In recent years, the company’s HR department has jumped on the branding bandwagon, touting its work environment, flexible hours and benefits through a variety of media, including television.

The campaigns were successful and award-winning — Tim Hortons took home honours at the 2008 Employer of Choice Marketing Awards for best broadcast advertising and best community/corporate citizenship program. They were also undoubtedly expensive.

But all that hard work — the time, money and effort that went into building Tim Hortons up as a great employer — was counteracted by the actions of managers at a franchise in London, Ont., when they fired a worker for giving a single Timbit, valued at 16 cents, to a crying child.

The headlines came fast and furious. The mainstream media across the country jumped all over the story. It’s the kind of story that has what we journalists call “legs.” It even made it into the international news — wire service United Press International included an explanation that a Timbit is a “tablespoon-sized solid doughnut” to put the story into context for its non-Canadian readers. It became fodder for water cooler conversation in offices across the country.

Employer of choice branding never has those kinds of “legs.” It doesn’t inspire water cooler chats, front-page photos or segments on the evening news.

Despite the best efforts of the HR department, ask the average Joe on the street about working at Tim Hortons and you’ll likely hear a joke about getting fired because of a Timbit.

That exposes a fundamental flaw all organizations have to cope with: The actions of one rogue manager can sink a company’s best efforts.

Tim Hortons did the only thing it could have done in response. It moved quickly to reinstate the employee, at another location to minimize the awkwardness. But the damage is done. One of the company’s iconic products — the venerable Timbit — is now synonymous with being fired.

No amount of employer of choice branding can counteract that. Time is the only cure, as the story eventually fades away.

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