McDonald’s SA's Brigitte Da Gama says their culture is what gets them through tough times

It is also why Brigitte won awards for Transformation & Empowerment and Talent Management at the 2020 CHRO Awards.

McDonald's South Africa (SA) was the first fast-food chain to introduce the drive-thru model in the country and among the first to have nationwide restaurants operating 24 hours a day. However, when the president announced the implementation of lockdown level 3, as he did in December last year, the curfew hours changed and that directly impacted their ability to trade. This is part of reason why the Exco team’s response to the crisis – in so far as deciding very early on not to retrench any employees, despite the obvious disincentive - should be commended.  As much as we are a profit-driven organisation, we are also very much aware of our role in the broader society as custodians of the communities in which we operate

“Unfortunately due to the devastation that Covid-719 has erupted on businesses across many sectors has resulted in many South Africans been unemployed. We are extremely grateful that we were able to avoid drastic measures of retrenchments especially with employees like ours who, more often than not don’t have tertiary qualifications and would struggle to find alternative employment, compounded by a very weak economic environment,” says McDonald’s SA chief people officer Brigitte Da Gama.

The international structures of McDonald’s have also been impressed with how the South Africa business has handled the crisis. Brigitte’s human capital team has often been asked for guidance on how other global markets can emulate their practices and approach to preserving jobs. One of the reasons behind McDonald's SA’s ability to preserve jobs is that it has been pursuing an aggressive growth strategy for a number of years and, although that plan was somewhat curtailed in 2020, there was still an opportunity to open new restaurants to which existing employees were redeployed.

Family in mourning

Such has been the care that McDonald’s SA has taken to ensure the safety of its employees, not a single employee died due to Covid-19 until November last year, which is unusual for such a large organisation However, one of the restaurant managers passed away that month and “it was such a blow. We keep records of everyone that gets infected with the virus and track their recovery very closely, but that was the first fatality we had.”

Most recently, another member of the McDonald’s SA family, succumbed to the virus and that brings the total tally (at the time of writing) to two people, and while that may seem like a very small figure in comparison to the numbers throughout the country, Brigitte says the pain is felt throughout the organisation. The late member of the ‘McFamily’ joined the company as an employee in 1995 - the same year that McDonald’s launched in South Africa. “His career trajectory was not uncommon in McDonald's because the growth path is very clear and transparent”, she said adding that McDonald’s SA has outlined clear ‘Steps to Success’ showing which McDonald’s core curriculum courses employees must complete at every step in the promotion ladder to becoming a franchise owner or to join the corporate business. 

For example, McDonald’s SA has a six-month leadership programme for junior managers called ‘Khulisa’, which is delivered in partnership with Development Dimensions International. Another six-month programme called the ‘WITS Entrepreneurial Leadership Programme’ aims to grow the level of business acumen in the organisation at various levels to get more people to execute their duties with a business mindset.

“He owned and operated four restaurants and his brother looks after one of our regions, so his passing has really left a mark on us. We say people at McDonald’s are a family because, so often, we see people joining the businesses at the lowest level and, with hard work, achieving great things, just like our late franchise owner did.”

Award-winning culture

McDonald’s SA has garnered a reputation for human capital excellence in recent years. Brigitte was nominated for both the 2019 and 2020 CHRO Awards, winning both the Transformation & Empowerment Award and the Talent Management Award last year. She gives all the credit to her team, which has been instrumental in overhauling the human capital function in the time since Brigitte joined the organisation.

“The gala night was the highlight of an otherwise treacherous year and winning those awards, although completely unexpected, was a testament to how much my team has transformed.  It took us six years to build a formidable team within the business and deliver the impact needed in the human resources space.”

One of the key drivers of success has been their focus on the culture of the organisation. The HR team developed the framework for a culture that would be based on three pillars set by McDonald's Global - 'Customer Obsessed', ‘Better Together', and 'Committed to Lead'.

“We designed a plan for how we could implement that in South Africa and it was a very successful project. Culture change is very difficult to execute, but we were able to do it by 'Africanising' the three culture pillars to create what has now become our 'Kulcha Journey'. We developed the 'Kulcha' app, which is a training, rewards and (peer-review) recognition, and engagement platform available to all employees. We held culture workshops across the country to develop and share the vision of what the new McDonald's SA culture should be,” says Brigitte, adding that the app was a master stroke.

“We have training videos on the app which are quite humorous and have actual McDonald's SA employees starring in them. That approach to the culture change is why I think everything landed really well - because people could relate to it.” 

The culture change piece revitalised a workforce that has historically always had a voice. The decision to introduce 24/7 trading hours many moons ago, for example, was largely driven by a request from employees. So, when consulted on the idea, they gave it their full stamp of approval.

Striving for inclusion

With an extensive career spanning over several industries such as Academia, IT and Financial Services, Brigitte eludes to the fact that McDonald’s SA is the most diverse organisation she has ever been a part of, owing to the global restaurant chain’s business model, which requires that it employ people from the communities where the restaurants are located. This, she says, has given rise to an immense appreciation for diversity and inclusion.

“McDonald’s SA is deliberately focused on including all people from the various cultures that constitute our beautiful rainbow nation. For us diversity represents a strength.”

McDonald’s SA also has a practice called 'Rap Sessions' which are communication sessions with restaurant staff to solicit ideas, or understand any concerns that the staff have or to discuss ideas for freshening things up. Brigitte’s team will invariably have representatives in those meetings.

The HR function monitors morale through these and various other mediums, including an anonymous whistle-blower line, through which employees can report their concerns on any matter that may need to be escalated. Brigitte says that, when employees see that every issue is being investigated, they feel listened to and that boosts morale.

“We have built engagement into the culture and the systems in the organisation, but we also give ourselves licence to have fun. This is part of our culture too, and we like to organise engaging events that people talk about for months afterwards,” concludes Brigitte.