No quick fix to ‘clueless’ interview by Muffin Break boss

Insight

Even if you put aside Muffin Break General Manager Natalie Brennan’s comments on unpaid work this weekend, the complete absence of a response as social media spun into overdrive has been surprising.

When you consider payroll issues that have beset the bakery franchise brand, it becomes clear this backlash will require more than a simple apology.      

The central point made by the GM has been that young people have stopped coming to her business for unpaid internships.

If this was a pitch to encourage more to knock on her door, then describing them as "clueless" and having an "inflated sense of self-importance" was an interesting strategy to say the least.

Since the interview was published on Saturday afternoon, more than 5,100 individuals have weighed in online with the issue trending on Twitter for all the wrong reasons and a barrage of complaints have battered the brand’s Facebook page.

There has been no evidence so far of proactive media engagement in response to the unfolding backlash. It’s unclear if any action has been taken at all, though complaints on the Facebook page allude to critical messages being hidden by moderators.

You might think they deserve what they get which is harsh but fair. The issue is that as a franchise business, much of that outrage will be focused on the small business owners that run the 210 Muffin Break outlets around Australia.

What makes enacting a standard crisis response – an apology, ‘counselling’ of the staff member in question, etc. – untenable, in this case, is the brand’s history of fair work complaints. Whether perception or reality, the fact is these comments by the GM and any attempt to hose them down are seen through that prism.

For example, just last year a Muffin Break franchise owner told a Federal Parliamentary Inquiry that management told him to “consider underpaying staff I can trust” (this was denied by the company).

An earlier investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman found a Muffin Break outlet at Eastland shopping centre, in Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs, had underpaid a 24-year-old staff member by almost $20,000.

This is a serious problem. With election season underway and complaints about chronic underpayment of staff building momentum there is growing pressure to act. For the reasons detailed above, an apology won’t cut it alone. Simply replacing the GM won’t either. It must be more substantial.

While the jury is still out on 7-Eleven’s response to a wage fraud scandal, the steps they took to counter what had by then become an entrenched crisis were by necessity significant and far reaching. They included: setting up a fair compensation scheme, removing senior executives, changing the business model to make it fairer and overhauling the board. An activist response to checking payroll was required (raids on stores revealed further payroll issues). Centralised payroll and even tech fixes, such as biometric thumbprint clock on and off systems, have been introduced.

When cosmetics brand Lush faced complaints of underpaying nearly 6000 employees – around $2 million in total – they enacted what has been recognised as a case study response. They identified how the issue occurred, publicly acknowledged their mistakes in the media and on a dedicated webpage, and announced their plans for a national payback scheme to return the payment shortfall to their staff. And they asked forgiveness from their customers and staff.

There’s no quick fix to a crisis like this. Unless the culture changes, people can get around expensive systems and the issue will continue to fester. The only way to get back on track is for the business to recognise its mistakes, take ownership of them and fix them.