What It’s Really like to Work at Mcdonald’s

When you think of business and McDonalds, for most people burgers, franchising, and the golden arches come to mind. Many have also heard about how they have invested in real estate and the success this has brought them.

There is no doubt McDonalds is a business powerhouse in these areas. 

However, when I think about why they are successful, I think about their staff above all – how they have created a culture of excellence with a workforce of teenagers, dropouts, and outcasts. They have set up and trained this workforce to run like a well-oiled machine. 

As a 16-year-old, I was in a rush to make money. My dad reluctantly agreed to let me drop out of school only if I got a full-time job. The local McDonalds hired me as a “daily cleaner.” My introduction to full-time work was cleaning the toilets, washing windows, and hosing down car parks at 6:00 every morning. (None of which I’ve ever done again according to my wife)

The Army of the Business World 

I have never been in the army but have talked to enough people to get a good idea of what it’s like. From the very first hour of boot camp right through to the top General, the army is a place where you follow orders and procedure. 

So is McDonalds. 

When you start out at Maccas, they don’t teach you about the entire system or the company goals. You get shown how to do one thing, usually something basic like the fry station or cleaning lobby. 

Slowly, as you move up the ranks, you start to see all the pieces of the puzzle come together. You see how everything is connected, how each little procedure impacts the overall success of the company goals around service, quality of food, and finances. 

The core of the business has not changed in 71 years and they are always upskilling and sending managers on courses. Somehow in this disciplined and regimented environment, there is still room for creativity, personality, fun, and lifelong friendships. They are striving to make the business better, faster, more convenient and trying new ideas to ensure it stays relevant.

To introduce my perspective on working at McDonalds, among other things I will discuss the following:

  • Black Socks 
  • Army-Like Discipline 
  • Crew Trainers and S.O.C.’s 
  • Josh Hook, a Real Mentor
  • Dealing with Workplace Conflict
  • Use the Checklists 

I will then finish with my perspective of McDonalds from 12 years on. 

Black Socks 

To this day I only wear black socks – my drawer is filled with about 20 pairs. At my orientation, before starting work, it was drilled into me, “Always wear black socks.” Years later, I learnt that this was a pet peeve of Ray Kroc (the guy who took McDonalds from 6 stores to 7,500). He hated seeing white socks worn with black trousers. This fascinates me – not that he hated white socks but that this stipulation was communicated in New Zealand in 2001. That’s 17 years after he died.  

How does something so simple stay as part of the culture? 

At our orientation, they issued our uniform. It was clear what the expected standards with this uniform were. There was a policy for hair style/color, jewelery, makeup, and being clean shaven. There was a checklist to make sure all these items had been discussed, and we had to sign it off to indicate we understood. It made me think, “If they are going to be this hard out about black socks, I better make sure the rest of my uniform is faultless.”

Right from the start we learnt there was an expected standard for everything, and they made sure you understood them. Stay inside the boundaries, and you’re all good. Step outside the boundaries, and you’re in trouble. In saying that, it was self-policed more than it was enforced by management. 

Army-Like Discipline

It wasn’t just the uniform. Being on time – actually, being early – for your shift was crucial. If your shift started at 4 pm, you were expected to be in the crew room at 3:55 pm with your Ironed shirt, polished black shoes, hat, apron, and black socks, of course. 

The discipline revolved around understanding and following the rules, policies, and procedures.

Even Learning to communicate was a foundational tenet we learned. As a 16-year-old, I was taught that there are 4 key parts to communication: 

  1. A Sender,
  2. The Message, 
  3. The Receiver,
  4. and the Feedback. 

Effective communication relied on all 4 of these, but the one that was drummed into us was repeating back everything so the sender knew we understood the message. 

Repeat orders to the customers so they know you didn’t miss anything; acknowledge instructions given by your managers; discuss training in your own words so it’s clear you understood, and repeat requests from other team members while you’re working 

Crew Trainers and S.O.C 

Wade started working full time at the same time as I. We went through our initial training together, eventually both moving on to become managers. He was the best man at my wedding and a life-long friend. 

I rang Wade, asking what he remembers about our time at McDonald’s. His first comment was, “They made it hard to fail; you get so much training. They worked out the best way to do things, documented it, and made sure you had the training to go and do it.” 

The business was broken down into “stations,” and every “station” had an “S.O.C.” (Station Observation Checklist). 

Becoming a Crew Trainer was the first step in your journey of becoming a McDonalds manager. A Crew Trainer’s job was twofold:  to demonstrate his knowledge and understanding of the SOC and to take the time to show this to others. 

As keen young Crew Trainers, Wade and I used to have competitions to quiz each other on our McDonald’s knowledge. Wade could still recall a lot of this knowledge. We remembered that there were approximately 350 seeds on a big mac bun, and the seeds came from Guatemala. 

Wade could recall the fat content and cooking time of a 10:1 patty (the one that goes in a Big Mac), the 4:1 patty (the one that goes in a Quarter Pounder), and the temperature of the grill these cooked on. 

Apparently, I always had a trump card though. I would ask the crew to recall which two McDonalds products had lemon in them – mayonnaise and apple pies (at the time at least). 

Hot Chocolate Wednesdays – my weekly Wednesday morning ritual with the boys before school/kindergarten

Josh Hook, a Real Mentor 

As some of my friends started to head off to university or into trades, I was momentarily restless. I had been working at McDonald’s for a couple of years and worked my way up to 2.I.C of Silverstream where I had a fair amount of responsibility and a good salary for an 18-year-old.

Naturally, I began to think about the path I was on. I questioned, “What should I be doing with my life?”

I never set out to work my way up the McDonalds ranks; it just happened. I had got to this point without really aiming for it. Really, I was living life week-to-week, working hard to make as much money as possible to spend on my car, beers, and whatever crazy adventures we thought of that week.

Josh Hook sat me down and observed,  “You’re clearly into business. Why don’t you hang around here for a while and learn about running a business.” He encouraged me to make the most of my time here at McDonald’s, however long or short that would be, and “learn while I earn.”

That’s exactly what I ended up doing. I committed to stay and work alongside Josh; I became his right-hand man and got stuck into management even more. I was passionate about running the best store possible. I took it seriously, working even more hours while my mates were off relaxing, driving, or partying. I never felt like I was missing out though. I was learning so much.

He was the first real mentor I had. While I could name plenty of managers that invested time in training me, Josh Hook went one step further and did more than just teach me to become a manager. He addressed and developed my character, teaching me life skills that would last far beyond the two-years I spent running the Upper Hutt store.  

Most of all, he changed my life by giving my talent in business discipline and focus. 

Dealing with Workplace Conflict (a.k.a. Mediation)

Geoff and I worked together at McDonalds Silverstream. While we are good friends now, we clashed the first few times we worked together. We were both Junior Managers, working hard, wanting to do the best we could. What I thought was best for the shift and what Geoff thought sometimes didn’t line up, and neither of us was afraid to voice our opinion or back down. I think at first, I saw Geoff as competition, one of the imports coming to tell us what to do. 

Josh Hook sat us both down for “mediation.” He told us, “You’re both trying to achieve the same thing; you’re just coming at it from different angles. You’re both great managers, both passionate, both care about the business.” This mediation session was very eye opening. Not only did I see Geoff in a different light, but it was a firsthand experience of positive conflict management when it goes well. 

I have had to deal with my fair share of workplace conflict over the years. Numerous times I have been complimented on my “mediation skills,” and this makes me smile. I think back to being that headstrong 18-year-old boy who could only see his own way. 

It was a lifelong lesson. Mediation doesn’t need to be hard or scary. It’s simply encouraging and showing others we are all on the same team – that we all have the best intentions, and we are just going about it differently. 

Use the Checklists 

I had just finished a busy dinner rush on a Friday night shift. 

Earlier that day, I had woken up at 1:30 pm, rocked into work at 1:59 to start my 2 pm shift, and ripped into it. I hadn’t planned ahead, completed a “line up” (a list of who is scheduled to work that shift and what stations you will put them on), and didn’t have time to do a pre-shift checklist. 

I was winging it, but this is what I did best – at least that’s what I thought. 

It was a busy shift with heaps of last-minute changes, but I was a good manager who thrived in the heat of the moment, making fast decisions to get the shift back on track. We smashed our sales targets, service was fast, and everyone got their breaks. I was feeling pretty good. 

Josh Hook hauled me into the office, but he didn’t look happy,

JH – “Mate, you’ve got to start using the checklist!” 

JC – “What do you mean, I ran a primo shift!” 

JH – “Yes, but half the problems you solved would not have happened if you used the pre-shift checklist. You were on the back foot from the start. You worked twice as hard because you didn’t have a plan.” 

JC – “So you think I am not a good manager because I didn’t use a checklist?” 

JH – “You’re a good manager, but you could be an even better manager if you started using the checklist.” 

He finished by telling me, “No matter how good you are, you’re never too good for a checklist.”

Those words and the lesson he taught me that day have stuck with me ever since. 

Not only did I become a convert and start using the checklist, but I have also become one of the biggest advocates for them. When I started out at the Silverspoon and Kiwi Homes, one of the first things I did was start creating checklists. 

A comment from my mate Geoff – I like this because it highlights that you don’t have to be getting it wrong in order to be better. When it comes to improving, people often get held up on the concept of it. They think must be doing something wrong and get defensive, but it just means you can refine it a step further and get it more right. It’s a scale rather than a binary thing. 

He Expected Me to Do More

3 months before Josh Hook left to go overseas, we swapped roles. I became Josh’s boss. I was only 19, and he sat me down to tell me he expected me to improve the store even more than he had. 

Secretly, I already had this goal, but how do you tell your mentor, “I think I can do better than you”? In the end, I didn’t have to. Before he left, he made me commit to being better than he. 

He explained that the he had taken the store as far as he could with his knowledge. I had come along for the ride, and I knew everything he knew. So now he wants me to take that knowledge and do even better than he. 

It was so empowering for him to instruct me that he “expects me to do better.” Again this is a culture that permeates throughout McDonald’s on every level. Always encouraging you to better yourself, your team, and your store, in a good way.

McDonald’s – The Best Business School

I actually really miss my time at McDonalds.I have come to appreciate the army-like structure, routine, and discipline expected. At every level, from junior worker to franchisee, there is a manual to follow; they make sure you understand the core elements of the business. They make it clear what you need to do to succeed and that you have the skills and knowledge to achieve these results. 

If you’re not achieving results in a certain area of the business, there are checklists and troubleshooting guides to follow. You then make an “action plan” to fix that area and review the results again. This information and process are not new or unique to McDonald’s but they are a textbook model of how to do it. 

They create an environment where good, honest feedback is regularly received, and you’re also expected to give it to others. Most importantly, in both the stores I worked at, there was a sense of team and comradery which still exists years after we all finished working there. 

My time at McDonald’s gave me far more hands-on experience than going to university.

Experience dealing with staff, customers, finances, stock, equipment, head office, etc. Learning how to motivate 16-year-olds to be excited to work, how to train and develop managers, how to deal with real-time problems like unexpected rushes of customers, running out of stock, or having multiple staff calling in sick and still running a shift to a high standard.

I have drawn on this foundation many times in the 13 years since I have moved on from Maccas. It gave me the skills required to fix and improve the Silverspoon, and those same skills are being used now at Kiwi Homes.

Silverstream McDonalds – Where it all started for Katie and I

Bonus: A McDonalds Love Story to Finish

Maccas was also where I met the love of my life, Katie. 

Katie and her sister walked into Silverstream McDonalds one evening and ordered hot chocolates. They had been living in Canada for the last 3 years and just arrived back in New Zealand. There was an attraction to Katie straight away. 

I went out to the lobby to do the rounds and conveniently found myself free to talk. Katie started coming in more often, eventually getting a job. It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing at first; the funny thing is once she started working, we didn’t really get along. I was so passionate about “improving the store” that we clashed a time or two. 

We would hang out for a bit and get annoyed at each other. After a few times of Katie deleting my number (because she wanted the satisfaction of saying “who’s this” when she answered), she eventually learned my number by heart. From then on, it was history. Those traits that initially annoyed us – things like being straight up, candid, and determined – came to be the things we loved about each other. 

At the ripe old age of 21, we married, and 12 years down the road, it has been nothing short of amazing. We have travelled the world, run the Silverspoon and now have two amazing boys, Jacob and Levi.