McDonald’s has come under fire in recent weeks for a series of posts on an employee web portal (now deleted) which struck many people as insensitive at best and hypocritical at worst. The “tip sheets” included a health page from a university-based group of authors that cautioned readers to limit their consumption of fast foods. Other tips included financial advice to sell unused items if money is short, and at the other extreme, what to tip your au pair for the holidays. Given the company’s largely low-wage workforce – an issue that has been receiving unflattering attention (including some strikes by workers) lately – these suggestions struck many as insulting. Some were appalled that a website for a fast-food company offered suggestions about applying for food stamps.
As a clinical director at an employee assistance company for a number of years, I had to be aware of the interface between the work-life vendors and the users of the content. Many employee assistance programs have been “driving utilization onto the web,” meaning that the value to the company purchasing EAP services is seen as including the provision of useful content that will help employees and their family members to manage their lives better. Increasingly, online resources and articles are being used to fulfill this need.
The vendors who provide these services place a great quantity of very reputable and potentially helpful information on the web portals, which in theory should prove useful to employees and families. But more useful is the information that can be provided in response to the employees’ and families’ stated concerns and requests. If someone is having trouble paying all of their bills, it helps to know something about the background of the problem, before you recommend a book on personal money management or a budgeting article. Maybe there is a family member with a substance abuse or gambling problem. Maybe someone is so depressed that the bills are sitting in a pile, unpaid. You need to ask the right questions in order to provide the most help. That is where the real value of an employee assistance program lies. It is the “high touch” point where the person seeking help connects with a person who can get them the help that they need. And do it without a lot of “runaround,” searching, and sifting through information that may or may not be helpful.
A long-standing bit of sarcasm in the EAP world has been the disdain over offering employees services like pet-sitters and dog-walkers. And, indeed, for many busy middle-income families with cherished pets and two working parents, those chores can present a big stress, and services that help with them can be very helpful. But not many burger-flippers can afford an au pair.
But a bigger issue, for McDonald’s upper management, is the need to put themselves in their employees’ shoes and understand what life is like for them. If the company is attaining its success at the expense of its employees, a website that purports to help those same employees will be seen as lip service, or worse, as insulting. The risk for tone-deaf offerings is greatly increased. Companies that truly value their employees do many things to demonstrate their concern. First, they pay them a living wage for full-time work, so that they can have the basic necessities of life without having to apply for government assistance. They need to be sensitive to the employees’ actual work-life stresses, in the areas of child care and health care in particular. When all this is in line with the offerings of information and resources through the work-life services, it will ring more true. Concern for employees means thinking of them as people, and as participants in the company’s success.