Posted January 9, 2012 10:48 am by with 20 comments

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Last week Andy Beal blogged about the latest stupid human trick performed by a food chain employee which has caused an online reputation issue. This time it was Papa John’s. It appears as if pizza chains (remember the Domino’s incident?) have trouble hiring minimum wage workers with any scruples.

The long and short of the story is that a Papa John’s employee in NYC was stupid enough to use a racial slur to describe a customer. It’s not like they just said something either. Rather this employee (who has since been fired) decided to immortalize their ignorance by adding the customer description to a field that appears on the customer receipt. Boy, if there wasn’t morons out there like this we may not have anything to write about, would we?!

Here is the receipt from a CNN story about Papa John’s apology.

So how do you compound a dumb thing? Do it to someone like Minhee Cho who is a communications manager at nonprofit investigative journalism group ProPublica. Yikes! The plot thickens.

Then throw in a little more salt on the Papa John’s reputation wound in that this happens during a time when the chain is doing a huge advertising push as the official pizza of the Super Bowl and you have a reputation and general business perfect storm.

Now here is where I have to start to ask questions like is it really the fault of Papa John’s, the company, that this happened? I get that it was their employee but can you screen for racism when hiring? Can you really screen for poor taste, stupidity and just plain dumb? In the sense of can a person add or subtract you certainly can but when it comes to issues like this it gets very difficult to find out about a person in these areas in the hiring process. Imagine the questions companies would have to ask and the lawsuits that would be the result of trying to know the truth about your next hire?

The trouble with the viral nature of the Internet and most people’s unwillingness to look beyond a headline is that while Papa John’s has done what it can here (apologized to Ms. Cho and apparently fired the employee) people will paint the company as being insensitive when it was really an individual who happened to be employed by Papa John’s at the time who is at fault. Right now, Domino’s, McDonald’s, Burger King and more are counting their blessings that this person didn’t try to get a job with them. Why? Because they would have likely hired them just like Papa John’s did!

The world is filled with pathological liars and subversives who can do what they need to to get what they want, even if it is just get a job at Papa John’s. The online reputation landmine that exists for all companies is that it is usually far too late in the process when you learn someone’s true colors and the level of their depravity. Honestly, though, I can’t fault the company unless there is a culture of this kind of thinking which is hard to imagine in this day and age. It’s more of a societal issue but that’s for another post on another day.

As for avoiding this? I don’t think you can. Until people are conscientious enough to look past the headline nature of a reputation issue the best a company can do is to make sure it has stern and very intense policies about breaches of good taste and conduct in their employees. Even if you have employees sign some kind of paper saying they won’t do certain things that will not stop those things from happening. What it may do is lessen the impact after the stupid human trick was performed but to prevent things like this from happening at all? Ain’t gonna happen.

So what is your company doing to lessen the impact of what seems to be the inevitable in the social media world? Do you really believe that all of your current employees are incapable of doing something as crass and idiotic as this? I sure hope not because that means that the fantasy land you live in is so far removed from reality that you don’t stand a chance.

So in the end was Papa John’s REALLY at fault here? Could they REALLY have done ANYTHING to prevent this? Let’s hear your take? I bet there are more than a few opinions about this one!

  • At what point do bonehead employees become subject to libel or defamation lawsuits?

    • Good question, Steve. And where will courts hold the company responsible for their employees’ personal biases. It’s a slippery slope that will be tested sooner than later I suspect.

  • For awhile, I agreed with you, Frank, but then I read this and I’m not so sure anymore. I don’t think anyone should have defended the term that was used here, and that’s what “Jerome” did.

    • Wow, Tamar, that is interesting! So much for it not being ingrained in the culture. Interesting thing is that the Papa John’s brand as a whole gets dinged for something even their franchisee may not find offensive. I know New York is a tough town but this is kind of ridiculous :-).

      So what do you think about this process that seems to be OK in the local “owner’s” eyes but can come off as crass and offensive to the general public? Looks like Papa John’s may have more work on their hands than just disciplining a cashier.

      Thanks for that info! Definitely sheds a different light on this whole thing. May be more systemic than we thought (in a regional kind of systemic way which makes it even more confusing!).

      • I live in NYC, and here especially, I’d be careful with my words.

        These guys should’ve chalked this up to a learning experience, made apologies, and moved on. They didn’t.

  • Could Papa Johns have prevented this? They could have removed the “name” field from the receipt. Better trained their employees. Better screened their employees. All would have helped, but stupid finds a way of standing in the spotlight, so, no, Papa Johns couldn’t have prevented this.

    And that’s a reason I run a social media monitoring software company! 😉 You never know when something like this will happen, or by which channel it will manifest itself. That’s why you have to monitor your reputation 24/7.

    Papa Johns did the right thing, but more importantly, it did it quickly. Just about EVERY company will suffer an ORM issue like this, the key is how you respond and how quickly you respond.

    My 2 cents.

    • ::upvote:: I agree with you, Andy. You can’t foresee the unexpected actions of individuals. How quickly you respond is the key in those situations.

      To Tamar’s point above: yikes, manager Jerome should have kept his mouth shut. Would be interesting to know if Papa John’s offered any coaching in this exact situation before Jerome spoke to press. Or if Jerome jumped the gun (which seems more likely given his response).

  • Frank, you bring up some very valid points in this piece.

    Corporations are made up of people, and sometimes those people do stupid things. It is hard to weed out every potential troublemaker, and sometimes companies have to deal with them after hiring them. I think Papa John’s did right by reaching out to the offended person and firing the employee responsible for offending her.

    Other than offering some free product, I can’t see what else they can do to resolve this kind of situation. Ultimately, it’s up to us individuals whether those actions are enough to warrant us continuing to purchase from Papa John’s.

    Certainly better training would help – but you are also quite right to point out that even with training some folks will still do the wrong thing.

  • As a former food service manager, I know that there are some thing you just can’t control. Try as you might, things like this happen. Just because someone is employed doesn’t mean they’re PROFESSIONAL…! And this isn’t an issue only for fast food…how about police offers making inappropriate Facebook posts? Employees getting fired over tweets? It’s nearly a universal that people just don’t know when to bite their tongue. In this case, what’s important is that Papa John’s took appropriate action immediately.

  • Can’t blame Papa John’s as Andy says, stupid will find the spotlight.

    In a case like this, from my point of view, as long as the company acts swiftly it will maintain most credibility. If they didn’t act fast then every additional day it carried on would have been damaging to it’s reputation. As it stands, just a minor blip which will be forgotten about quickly, not enough mud to stick.

  • Another very important point to consider is the necessity of companies/brands gaining social equity long before a crisis occurs. If you are interacting and engaging with customers, and the public in general, and build a reputation for being authentic and transparent, you will gain credibility and trust that will stand by you when you have to answer to actions like these. Too many companies are looking for ROI today, now, within minutes of expenditures instead of recognizing the long-term value, and yes ROI, of building and investing in relationships each and every day… Return on Relationship™.

  • They apologized quickly, took responsibility and fired the guy.

    Problem solved, as far as I’m concerned.

  • Ken

    Papa John’s quick and decisive response was an admirable move. It likely will get noticed by a majority of the people who become aware of the incident, and it will promote a growing recognition that this individual’s misguided action is hardly indicative of the company culture at-large.

  • I agree that there was little Papa John’s could have done to prevent the issue. In the big scheme of things, a quick reaction is about as good as it gets in a case like this.

    As Frank said, the combination of the instantaneous nature of the internet with our short attention spans means something like this can seem (temporarily at least) more important than it really is. Unprofessional employees insult customers all the time; it’s only news when it goes viral.

    Unlike the Chipotle dead-cat fiasco from December 2010, at least Papa John’s didn’t do anything to make matters worse.

  • Travis

    This is just another situation where another dumb person does another dumb thing. We all could of never heard about this and would have been just fine. Papa Johns could have fired this guy and never made this a big scene (not that it’s what they intended), but the simple fact that it went viral is actually beneficial to them, I think. How many times has this happened before and a company hasn’t tried to contact the public about it, showing the world that situations like these just aren’t acceptable? Firing the guy was plausible, it wasn’t heroic…..but it was SOMETHING, and something needs to be done about things like this. So I think we can all agree that simply because Papa Johns is a food company doesn’t mean they can’t be leaders amongst companies that just do things under the table to protect their reputation.

  • Larry

    I hope other food chains out there will take note and look at there employees closely for now on.I’m sure this don’t only upsets Ms. Cho but the asian community as well.I’m glad the employee got fired and hopes the next job he get they will pay attention to why he got fired from his last job.

  • Jim C

    The only people to blame are the guy’s parents. Can’t blame the employer, especially for a minimum wage worker.

  • I think that companies should really think about risk and reputation management when they start tweeting, posting on Facebook and utilizing other social media platforms on the Web. Yes, it’s sad that people tend to judge you with the slightest mistake, no matter how you apologize the nth time. You can’t please everyone, but you can surely find ways to learn from this incident so it won’t be repeated… and someone said, “fail fast, learn faster..”

  • LaToya

    while Mr. Reed makes some very good points, he was missing some facts. Facts like both the manager and assitant manager, had blowen off the comments we contacted by the media. It was not until the corporate office stepped in, was the employee fired.

    We have a corporate run Papa Johns were I live. The receipt listed an amputee as “Peg Leg”. The Manager at this location did nothing with the employee, and told the amputee, to have a nice day!

    One could hope that Papa Johns, starts a training program for management, & employees to correct this problem

  • paul

    This is good for Papa Johns IMO. They took care of it and it’s free advertising. You think a drunk college kid is going to be deterred by this> Heck no, in fact they will probably specifically think of ordering from Papa Johns when they get the munchies because of this idiot. It get there name in the news (for FREE) and nobody is going to hold PJs responsible for this type of stupidity.

    In fact just reading the article makes me want to buy a PJs pizza…. mmmmmm peeetszaaa