How not to treat an employee – A lesson from a Popeyes franchisee

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on April 27, 2015

Columnists who write about effective leadership occasionally learn of an outrageous news story in which the principles that they write about are violated – an organizational culture that values employees, avoids reputational risk and values the exercise of good critical judgment by its leaders.

Last week, it was reported that a pregnant employee working as a manager for a Popeyes restaurant in Channelview, Texas, was fired because she refused to reimburse the restaurant for $400 taken in a robbery, during which she was held at gunpoint. The franchise owner of the restaurant claimed the employee violated policy by keeping too much cash in the register. She stated that it was a very busy day at the restaurant, and that “she had moved the money as fast as she could.”

So, she loses her job because she was doing her job – serving her customers on a very busy day, and taking in lots of cash due to high sales volume. One of my editors who works part-time in a restaurant once had a conversation with the owner about the culture he wants to cultivate in his organization. He stated, “I don’t own this restaurant. The customers and employees do.” How true – a sign of an effective leader.

After the news story went viral, Z & H Foods, owner of the restaurant, issued the obligatory apology, gave the fired employee back pay and offered her job back. Her response was that she is not sure she wants to work for this owner again. No one would blame her for feeling this way.

My first reaction after reading this story was that you can’t make this stuff up. Unfortunately, these types of situations occur all too often. Let’s take a look at three elements of the organizational culture that lead companies on a journey towards preeminence, and violated by this Popeyes franchisee:

Valuing employees

Restaurants are in the people business – hiring the right people to serve customers. Restaurants on a journey towards preeminence strive to provide a great customer experience, which gives them a significant competitive advantage and attracts lots of customers. To be successful on this journey, restaurants need to attract the best people, and treat them as valued employees, not disrespect them.

Asking the Popeyes employee to reimburse the restaurant for the stolen $400 was insulting and disrespectful. How does the franchise owner expect to hire great people to staff his restaurant when it becomes known that this is the way he treats his employees? Great employees treat their customers in a way that encourages them to return to the restaurant. Employees will not act in this way towards customers if they are disrespected by their managers and are not happy employees.

After reading the news story, one wonders the degree to which the employees at this Popeyes restaurant trust the restaurant owner and are loyal to him, are empowered to make decisions and feel a sense of ownership in what they do. This is the type of organization that people want to work in and develop professionally. One gets the sense that the Channelview Popeyes restaurant is not that type of organization.

Avoiding reputational risk

In today’s world of social media, a reputation built over the years can be tarnished in minutes. Perhaps the Channelview Popeyes owner did not realize that blaming and then punishing his employee would generate such a negative response on social media. Not only did he embarrass himself and his own restaurant, he embarrassed all restaurants within the Popeyes chain.

The CEO of Popeyes Corporation needs to establish the right organizational culture, and ensure that all franchisees embrace it down through their respective organizations. The front line employees that serve customers day in and day out are key to the success of the company. Popeyes’ reputation rides on the customer experience that these employees provide.

Exercising good critical judgment

It is obvious that this Popeyes franchisee did not exercise good critical judgment when he fired the employee. One of the most important attributes to look for when bringing on a franchisee and when hiring employees is to ensure they will exercise good critical judgment. When a decision is not clear cut, individuals with good critical judgment will tend to make the right decision.

People with good critical judgment and a sense of self-confidence will violate company policy in the rare instance when the decision will save the company money or protect its reputation. When this occurs, these employees should be celebrated.

What can all leaders learn from this unfortunate event at the Popeyes restaurant in Channelview, Texas? Establish a strong culture throughout your organization that respects employees. Empower them to make decisions. Protect the company’s reputation. Associate yourself and hire people with good critical judgement. The success of your business depends on it.

Stan Silverman is a writer, speaker and advisor on effective leadership. He serves as the leadership catalyst at Tier 1 Group, a firm of strategists and advisors for preeminent growth. Silverman is vice chairman of the board of Drexel University, a director of Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania and former president and CEO of PQ Corporation. Follow: @StanSilverman. Connect: Website:

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