“Your cleaners are staff, too”

This week, Burger King issued an unusual warning to one of its outlets: “Don’t mop the tables.”

It might seem like a principle that most restaurateurs take as a given, alongside pearls of wisdom like “Don’t spit in the chips” and “Bathroom hand-dryers should not be used to reheat produce.” But the QSR giant was forced to publicly apologise after footage emerged of an employee using a mop meant for the floor to clean tables at a Burger King in Fruit Cove, Florida. The company called it “unacceptable,” and added that the cleaner’s actions were “not in line with our brand standards or operational procedures.”

You don’t say?

Believe it or not, this was not the only ‘cleaners-gone-rogue’ news story this week. Earlier in the week Christian Avant, the owner of Australian burger and cocktail chain Milky Lane, shared a screenshot of a night-shift cleaner caught snoozing on CCTV on Instagram. Strangely enough, the cleaner in question chose to sleep directly beside a strip of ambient lighting, giving him an uncanny angelic glow in Avant’s screenshot.

Avant’s reaction was positive. “Found this on our CCTV at one of the sites,” he said, “but to be honest, who hasn’t wanted a nap at Milky Lane before?” He added, “As long as the job’s done, we’re all for a cheeky siesta.”

Now, let’s be clear – there is a huge difference between napping on the job and actively engaging in unhygienic ‘cleaning’ practices. One is pushing your luck, whereas the other is more like setting your luck on fire and dancing on its grave. But by divorcing these incidents from their respective contexts, we do run the risk of allowing outrage to cloud our better judgement.

The napping cleaner of Milky Lane had arrived at the restaurant at 3 AM after cleaning two other locations that night. Many of us work extremely hard; many of us got our start in the industry by grinding away in busy cafes and restaurants. But, thankfully, few of us will ever have to experience what it is like to engage in physically laborious work like cleaning, all night long. One can imagine, though, that it’s not fun. By adopting a position of understanding and sympathy on Instagram, Christian Avant has not only generated a huge amount of publicity for himself and his brand, but he has also demonstrated an awareness that his staff are, it turns out, human beings.

Hospitality is often a deeply hierarchical industry. It was recently announced that the CEOs of the top 11 fast-food restaurants in the United States earn an average of $6,617 USD an hour, more than 500 times their average employees. Perhaps this is too much; perhaps it’s just right. The hospitality industry, and particularly the QSR sector, is full of employees looking to make ends meet – students, part-time workers, unskilled labourers. It’s to be expected that the highly regulated work of the front-line kitchen staff doesn’t warrant the salary of the business’s senior figures, whose work requires a great deal more experience and creative competence. But that doesn’t mean that the kitchen porter is any less important, morally speaking, than the person signing his pay cheque.

Burger King’s public statement regarding the table-mopping incident was, of course, justified. There is really no excuse for that level of – what is it? Uncleanliness? It’s worse than that – it’s actively-pursued dirtiness. The company have instructed the owner of the Fruit Cove Burger King to re-train his team on “all operational protocols”, in a bid to win back the public’s confidence and ensure this never happens again. And rightly so.

But, once we all calm down a bit, we might pry beneath the sticky, filmy surface and ask: what led this employee to think that mopping a table was a good idea? We’ve all been lazy from time to time – all, in our worse moments, cut corners. But the Burger King employee’s actions go beyond mere laziness. They’re symptomatic of malevolence. The employee consciously and deliberately made things worse, knowing full well that their actions were not just wrong, but genuinely ran the risk of causing harm to others via food contamination. And yet they still mopped the table.

Where does responsibility lie? Fundamentally, with the individual, yes. With the right attitude, there’s no reason that a low-level service industry worker can’t make the best of it, and potentially open some doors to allow them to advance their career. Just look at the Milky Lane napping cleaner, who made sure he had seen his job through to completion before taking a snooze on the (freshly polished) table. Had he instead half-heartedly wiped the place down before settling down to catch some shut-eye, his employer’s response might not have been so understanding.

But human beings don’t function in isolation. While we all have a responsibility to bear for our own actions, poor behaviour can be symptomatic of a more structural problem, too. Details have not emerged about the management conditions at the Fruit Cove Burger King, so this is all speculation, but it’s entirely possible that the table-mopping employee was pushed towards their unsanitary actions by forces beyond their control.

Hospitality staff often work long hours, including weekends and night shifts. Their work can be repetitive, physically strenuous, and often requires dealing with “those” customers. And all of this for relatively little pay. Factor in having to take on the responsibility of cleaning up other people’s mess – which, let’s be honest, is nobody’s idea of fun – and it’s not hard to imagine a healthy stoicism bubbling over into frustration, anger, and even hatred.

Employers should never forget that their staff – including cleaning staff – are human beings, with hopes, dreams, and limits. It’s a manager’s job to ensure that the people under his or her supervision are having their emotional needs met, at least insofar as their capacity to deliver the work that is required of them is concerned. There’s a reason that a great manager can enliven all aspects of a business, from the profits to the customer experience: it’s because a business is in many ways inseparable from its staff – and if the staff are suffering, so will the business.