Food safety training on Chipotle’s menu (Editor's Notes)

Transparent approach follows Maple Leaf Foods blueprint

Restaurant chain Chipotle — known for its burritos and, unfortunately, for poisoning a large number of its customers in 2015 — did something extraordinary earlier this month when it comes to human resources.

It closed every one of its restaurants across the United States on Feb. 8 for four hours and held mandatory staff training to talk about food safety. More than 50,000 employees gathered in 400 locations across the country to learn about changes the company made in the wake of high-profile incidents that saw sales tank in the fourth quarter of 2015.

It was an ugly run for the burrito chain — in August 2015, 243 customers at a restaurant in Simi Valley, Calif., were sickened by the Norovirus. The virus struck again in December at a restaurant in Boston, sickening 143 people. 

“Both cases were likely caused by a Chipotle employee who worked while sick, in violation of strict policies designed to discourage this,” the company said on a website it set up to address food safety issues.

But its problems were not confined just to Norovirus. In August, a salmonella outbreak in Minnesota and Wisconsin — linked to a batch of tomatoes served in 22 restaurants — sickened 64 people. And E. coli struck from October-November at restaurants in 11 states. A total of 60 people fell ill.

The toll went beyond just sick customers — the PR fallout caused sales to plunge dramatically at a chain that has only known explosive growth. In the fourth quarter, revenue dropped 6.8 per cent, comparable restaurant sales decreased nearly 15 per cent and net income was down a stunning 44 per cent, despite the fact the company opened 79 new restaurants in that time.

One can be cynical and call the safety training a PR stunt, but closing all restaurants and gathering staff together sends a very clear message to the workforce (and customers) — this is a major deal, and it is being taken very seriously. 

Chipotle also live tweeted during the training, and used Periscope to broadcast it. 

The tweets were hardly groundshaking — there were only 14 tweets during the session and most were rather inane, such as “We’ve come together today to make sure Chipotle is not just the most delicious place to eat, but also the safest” and “We worked with experts who helped us create the most effective food safety program possible.”

Chipotle’s response followed a blueprint used by Maple Leaf Foods. In 2008, the Canadian company faced a crisis after a Listeria outbreak at a plant in Toronto. 

The damage was far worse as nearly two dozen people died after becoming sick. CEO Michael McCain took full responsibility, stepped into the spotlight and helped save the company. 

He addressed the issue back in 2013 at a Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto that was covered exclusively by Canadian HR Reporter.

“It was a very tragic event — 23 people lost their lives on my watch, my accountability,” he said. “And more than any other time in our history, our core values guided our behaviour through that time.”

It was leadership, and that’s what it takes from organizations in tough times. That includes a full-blown crisis, like the ones experienced by Chipotle and Maple Leaf Foods. 

But it also includes the lesser-known moments that occur every day at an organization. 

I don’t pretend to be a food safety expert so it’s beyond me to suggest whether or not Chipotle is on the right path on that front. But clearly the founders are passionate about their food — and are being extraordinarily transparent about the steps they are taking to become a leader in food safety. 

Transparency serves every firm well. The employee engagement scores actually increased at Maple Leaf Foods following the Listeria outbreak — from 82 per cent to 96 per cent. 

McCain said there are four attributes of passionate people: they care about things that are important to them; they are action-oriented; they’re willing to overcome obstacles; and they are fundamentally optimistic.

You need as many of those people on your payroll as possible. HR departments need to nurture — and advocate for — those leaders who show genuine passion. They are the ones who will step up, and not just when disaster strikes — they will do the everyday lifting to help ensure things don’t go south in the first place.

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