The McDonald’s Fiasco: It Never Makes Sense to Follow Rules Over the Cliff

They say it was Claire Booth Luce, the famous playwright, socialite, ambassador, and U.S. congresswoman who coined the line that “no good deed goes unpunished.”

Unfortunately, that’s how it seems sometimes with workplace rules. Smart, well-meaning employees who try to exercise a little independent judgment all-too-often find that using their brain and trying to do the right thing runs head on into hard-and-fast, no exception policies that their companies have put in place.

When that happens, guess what happens? Yes, you know the drill — employees who try to think and bend the rules find their independent thinking gets them bounced out of a job.

Getting fired for catering to a VIP

Here’s what happened when one McDonald’s assistant manager recently tried to bend the rules to help a VIP:

An assistant manager at a Minnesota McDonald’s found herself kicked to the curb recently after her boss found out that she’d broken the rules by letting Minnesota Vikings superstar Adrian Peterson use the restaurant’s restroom after hours.

The woman, who had been working at McDonald’s for seven years, was working the late-night shift, in which the drive-thru is open but the restaurant’s seating area is closed. Around 3 a.m., she noticed a man standing at the drive-thru window, asking to use the bathroom.

Eventually, she recognized him as the NFL running back and decided to let him in to use the facilities.

“He’s a public figure… I know him better than some of the maintenance people that come in and out,” she explained. “I never thought in a million years that that decision was going to cost me my career.”

Fortunately, her good deed didn’t cost her career. After she went to the local media with her story (she originally posted pleas for help on Peterson’s Facebook page, but to no avail), McDonald’s started getting calls from reporters. According to the Twin Cities CityPages, “they apparently had a change of heart and re-hired her.”

All well’s that ends well, right? Well maybe, but it makes you wonder – what if the fired assistant manager didn’t have the presence of mind to go to the local media? And what if she took it to the media and ended up talking to the wrong, short-sighted editor who maybe didn’t see this as much of a story?

It never makes sense to follow rules over the cliff

Following the rules over the cliff NEVER makes much sense, and I wrote about this a couple of years ago when Best Buy canned two employees who tried to stop a knife-wielding shoplifter at the Best Buy store in Broomfield, Colorado.

What I said then applies to the McDonalds-Adrian Peterson incident, too:

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Reasonable people like reasonable rules and polices that help guide them in their everyday duties. Employees want to have some structure to their jobs and some help in dealing with difficult situations, and that’s why smart and well-thought-through policies can make for a better business.

But there is another side to workforce rules and regulations: They can be used as a hammer to pound workers into submission and limit flexibility and thoughtfulness. In my world, you want to cultivate smart employees who use their brain and exercise some discretion, when appropriate, to deal with the many shades of gray that we deal with in life.

The problem is that discretion is hard to manage. Tough, inflexible rules are much easier to hold employees to, especially when such rules are put in the hands of small-minded and unbending supervisors in an organization’s management food chain.”

Smart thinking in the workplace should be rewarded, not punished. As I have said before, “Common sense and good management practice should tell us that this is the right thing to do. Letting corporate rules and policies dictate otherwise is no way to run a railroad — or to build a highly engaged workforce.”

The McDonald’s assistant manager probably wasn’t a superstar worker, but she was the next best thing: a sharp employee who felt that bending the rules to accommodate a VIP in need was the right thing to do. She thought it would reflect well on the company, and it does.

What doesn’t reflect well is how McDonald’s reacted. Their knee-jerk decision to terminate her shows they don’t want managers to exercise their brains and perhaps bend the rules when an extraordinary situation presents itself.

Yes, the assistant manager got her job back, but maybe she should rethink her career. McDonald’s, like too many organizations, doesn’t seem to be the place for people who try to exercise good judgment and common sense.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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