Field Research: Day 188
I arrived at work and noticed that something was different. The sound of vegetable chopping was muted and anxious. The small-talk was subdued and peppered with dry throat-clearings. A sweaty mechanic was splayed out on the floor in front of me. He was tightening some bolts on the bottom of a sink. I clocked in and began washing a pile of dishes. After a few minutes, I looked over my shoulder and noticed the restaurant manager staring at me. Her lips were moving, but I couldn’t hear what she was saying. The mechanic was standing next to her. He crossed his arms. That is when I realized who he was. My co-workers had warned me of this man. He was from EcoSure—a roaming band of food safety specialists hired to make sure that we were Health Department-ready.
The restaurant manager was so gripped by fear that she could not raise her voice enough for me to hear. I turned the water off and asked her what was going on. “Did you not hear the alarm?” she asked, quietly. Thinking on my feet, I assumed that she was talking about the hourly alarm that should prompt handwashing, “Oh, sorry, the water was too loud and I didn’t hear it.” In reality, I had never—not once—seen anyone wash their hands after hearing the alarm. After a few weeks of working at the restaurant, the sound of the alarm had blended into the background noise of the place—like living next to a loud highway or waterfall. You don’t hear it.
I smiled and greeted the EcoSure inspector. The restaurants manager’s face twisted in panic. Her professional future relied on the internal report he was about to issue. Were we messing this up for her? Would there finally be consequences?
I joined the awkward beeline of employees at the handwashing sink. We tried to do a good job, but muscle memory kicked in and we washed our hands using our normal routine: three seconds of lazy rubbing in cold water, ending with some friendly banter as we dried our hands. The restaurant manager’s face contorted in further terror. In that moment, I recalled the employee handbook’s bullet list on handwashing:
- Use soap and hot water
- Rub vigorously
- All the way up to the elbow
- 20 second minimum
I glanced down at my coworker’s freshly washed hands and noticed that his forearms were covered in dried cilantro. The EcoSure inspector looked at his arms and scribbled notes on his clipboard. This was not going particularly well. The inspector led us back into the dish pit and explained to the manager how we needed to improve our method for doing dishes. We all nodded along and pretended to agree to. Even though his suggestions were completely unrealistic. We would have to renovate half of the restaurant to implement his work method. In a moment of exasperation, I wanted to firmly grasp the arm of the inspector and whisper, “The knives! It’s the knives! We never wash the knives!” A strange ghost voice wanted to escape over my lips, “Raw poultry. Fresh produce. It is all the same knives. We never wash them. That’s the secret. That’s why people are getting sick.”
I wanted to wrestle him to the ground and shriek, “Perhaps there is something fundamentally wrong with this business model? Perhaps it doesn’t make sense to hire teenagers and pay them minimum wage and ask them to cook fake Mexican food from scratch? Perhaps there is a reason that McDonald processes and freezes its food at offsite factories? Perhaps a fresh-made chicken burrito can’t cost $6.50?”
But, alas, I stayed quiet—like a coward.
Field Research: Day 198
After four months at Chipotle, I noticed redundancies in my research results. I saw the same slack-jawed customers again and again. I had the same conversations over and over. No new lessons were learned. I decided to conclude my research.
My resignation led to other co-workers leaving. Which, in turn, triggered decisions to move old employees to other Chipotle locations and transfer in new employees. In the ensuing shuffle, I heard an upsetting rumor of sexual misconduct: a timid young woman at our restaurant had been groped and sexually harassed by an older male employee. This daily harassment was repeatedly brought to the attention of the restaurant manager, but she chose to look the other way. After six months, the manager was finally pressured to do something about it and the harasser was transferred to Chipotle’s downtown location. The manager then lied to the victim and said that the harasser had been fired. All of this happened in the months before I was hired at the restaurant, but the harasser’s departure was referenced during the pow-wow on my first day at the restaurant. None of this was ever properly reported to Chipotle’s sexual assault hotline or the authorities. In the weeks after hearing this story, I carefully tried to approach the victim to talk about her rights and available avenues of legal recourse, but she did not want to talk about it. I will not surrender any more details about this out of respect for the victim. Sadly, this is probably how most incidents of sexual harassment end. They quietly disappear into the night. Most women just want to move on and live their lives. Seeking justice is risky and stressful. Victim blaming is common. What I find most upsetting about this story is that the restaurant manager is herself a woman. If middle-aged women can’t sympathize with the victimization of young women, then who can? I am not suggesting that this is a Chipotle-specific problem, or even an America-specific problem, but it is worrying that there are many stories about sexual harassment at Chipotle.
Two weeks after resigning, I received an email from Chipotle HQ where I was asked to fill out a survey about my departure. Without being very specific, I complained about food safety issues and uninvestigated sexual harassment allegations. Three weeks later I woke up to a voice mail from Denver, Colorado (the seat of Chipotle power):
Hi Magnus, this is ______ from the Chipotle corporate office. I am calling in response to the exit survey about your departure from Chipotle. I wanted to chat with you about that. My number is _______.
Over the next few days I called them back eight times, but no one picked up. It would have been interesting to hear what they had to say, because during my time at the restaurant it was clear that Chipotle’s upper management was in a state of panic. This was palpable to us at the bottom of the hierarchy in several ways. Mostly, we were faced with an endless trickle of changes to policy and work method. Unfortunately, information about new changes was disseminated strictly through word-of-mouth channels. One week, I would show up to work and hear that someone had heard from someone else that we were supposed to dunk onions in boiling water before dicing them. The next week, someone had heard that we were supposed to mix cilantro and lemon juice separately before adding the mixture to the guacamole. A few weeks after that, someone had heard that we should cut all vegetables in the morning and marinate all meats in the afternoon. I always wondered why they wouldn’t announce changes with a simple mass email. Or—if email is too complicated—at least hand out printed instructions. Instead, we altered our work methods based on vague rumors. And this vagueness made it easy to ignore suggestions that entailed extra work. I often saw co-worker utilizing their most familiar and comfortable work method.
This phenomenon reminded me of management classes I took in college. I remember learning that it is infamously difficult to implement organizational change with top-down directives. In most cases, employee behavior does not change. People prefer doing things the way they are used to. When real change fails to realize, companies often end up with a dissonance between what people say and what people do. Remembering the contradictory words and actions of the restaurant manager, I cannot imagine a more egregious example of dissonance.
According to my college textbooks, ‘visionary leadership’ is a possible solution to problems of failed organizational change. Chipotle’s upper management probably slept through that day of class, because rumor-based management is the opposite of visionary.
Pondering this lack of vision, I am reminded of when a new middle-manager was temporarily transferred in from the Chipotle location at the Northgate mall. On his first day, he passed a young Latina as she was preparing Guacamole. He stopped and said: “I am pretty sure you are supposed to let the lemon juice and the cilantro sit in a third-pan for a few minutes before you mix it into the guacamole.” She looked up at him without responding. After a brief silence, someone said from across the room: “She does not speak English.” The assistant manager looked at me with vacant eyes—shrugging his shoulders, mumbling something under his breath—and walked away into the sunset.