KFC Canada shares its secret recipe for “finger lickin’ good” employee engagement!

“It’s about putting people first” – Brian Henry. The secrets to fostering good employee engagement.

It’s a glorious Monday morning in the Canadian city of Toronto. The sun is shining, birds are singing, and Canadians are headed back to the office after a three-day weekend, which started on the previous Friday. But in KFC Canada’s corporate office, something is awry… The doors are still closed, the lights are off, and there is not a soul to be found. Not one of the 70 members of KFC Canada’s corporate team has shown up for work!

No, it’s not a conspiracy, nor is it a silent protest. It’s just that employees who work at the fast-food giant’s Canadian corporate office take an extra day home whenever Canada has a three-day weekend. If a national holiday occurs on a Friday, employees stay home the following Monday. If the holiday occurs on a Monday, employees stay away from the office the previous Friday. And the management team at KFC Canada’s corporate office is perfectly fine with it. 

That’s right! The company, known best for its chicken, seasoned with a secret recipe of “11 herbs and spices”, is perfectly fine with having head office team members turn a three-day weekend into a four-day weekend! It’s actually part of KFC Canada’s policy! What gives? We turned to KFC Canada’s Chief People Officer, Brian Henry, to get some insights into KFC Canada’s pretty peculiar practice.

Brian Henry is a man on a mission. As Chief People Officer, Brian is responsible for developing a highly engaged company culture, where KFC employees are excited about the work they do and are committed to helping the organisation achieve its business and branding goals. It’s a big responsibility! While KFC Canada’s corporate office has fewer than 100 employees, KFC Canada has more than 650 individual fast food restaurants that employ over 15,000 associates. And Brian is responsible for maintaining a highly engaged culture at the corporate office, which then flows through KFC’s Canada’s franchise network.

KFC Canada is part of Yum! Brands Inc., the global conglomerate and Fortune 500 company that also owns Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. Collectively, Yum! has over 43,000 restaurants in its network and operates in over 135 countries. And while Yum! keeps an understandably tight rein over the consistency of its food items through its network of fast food restaurants, the conglomerate gives each business unit tremendous flexibility over what initiatives they can use to maintain a highly engaged culture. This gives Brian the opportunity to “think outside the snack box” (sorry, couldn’t help it) and implement non-traditional policies that may seem odd, or even bizarre to other organisations.

One of these is KFC Canada’s four-day weekend policy, which was implemented as an extension of the company’s “Half-day Fridays” where all head office employees have the option of leaving the office every Friday at noon.

Commenting on the thinking behind KFC Canada’s policies of giving employees half-days off every Friday and allowing employees to take four-day weekends, Brian said the company realised that one of the biggest needs identified by employees was that of more time during the work week to do chores, pay bills and go the grocery store.

“We think that it is our duty to help our employees be more productive at work, to leave them to be more productive at home. So, having the half-day Friday gives them the latitude, at their discretion, to use that half-day Friday for going to get some chores done or doing something completely on their own. If you choose to stay in the office, that’s entirely up to you. If you choose to use the time to take care of an appointment, go ahead and do that. We trust that you will get your work done and then you’ll be accountable for any deadlines that took place.”

 “Accountable”. That’s a key word in Brian’s explanation about KFC Canada’s curious policies and a key ingredient in the company’s culture. Brian and his team trust that employees will use their company-given free time during the week responsibly, and that they will still meet their assigned deadlines.

“It’s about putting people first,” Brian explained, adding that companies can’t exploit their teams and still expect them to perform consistently well. This people-focussed philosophy is indoctrinated at Yum! Brands’ KFC Canada. But this approach didn’t just appear out of thin air. “People first” is at the core of Yum! Brands. It is ingrained in its brand DNA and Yum! employees are fully committed to this philosophy.

Another ingredient in the company’s employee engagement recipe is having fun and maintaining a celebratory atmosphere in the workplace. But, what’s the secret to having fun in KFC Canada’s workplace? Everyone is on board!

From top management to new hires, everyone is committed to fun. While several studies have unequivocally shown the benefits of having fun at work, and having a positive work culture, some companies are still sceptical about coming on board. “It must cost a fortune! Right?” Wrong. And this is when Brian shared the biggest secret to being able to maintain a fun environment in the workplace – it doesn’t cost anything! It’s all about a genuine, people-focussed mind-set. 

While the multinational corporation does budget for initiatives like award ceremonies, it also has several team-lead initiatives that don’t cost a thing. For instance, on each and every birthday of head office employees, the entire office gathers around to sing “Happy Birthday”. It doesn’t matter if it’s the CEO’s birthday or an intern’s birthday – everyone participates. Imagine an office of approximately 70 individuals, including the company’s senior leadership team, serenading the birthday guy or gal complete with clapping and cheering! Nice! As Brian notes: “If you want to be a great organisation, somewhere in your purpose, it needs to be about having a great employee experience.”

But if you were tempted to think that senior leadership are the ones coming up with initiatives that they believe employees would value, you may have to think again! Brian notes that the company’s philosophy is that the best way to drive engagement is to have its employees tell the leadership what benefits and initiatives they value the most. That’s right! Brian and his team have empowered their employees to come up with the activities they believe would best enhance the workplace culture.

KFC Canada is considered one of Canada’s best employers. In 2013, KFC Canada was ranked No. 38 by Great Places To Work Institute Canada, with an impressive 85% average engagement rate. And, Brian and his team knew the company could do better. So they put together a plan to enhance the level of employee engagement. But, instead of senior leadership coming up with a list of activities they thought would enhance their culture, they put their faith in their employees’ ability to do the job. 

Brian and his team created a cross-functional action team comprising six highly engaged employees who were well respected and trusted by their peers, and who had a passion for helping the company improve on its culture. This squad, known internally as the “Power Up Squad” was empowered to evaluate the company’s culture and develop initiatives that would enhance it. These individuals were specifically chosen for their courage to come forward and identify to the leadership team, the things which the company was doing well and those that required improvement. 

According to Brian, the squad took their role seriously and developed an arsenal of tools to help them mine the data. The squad held focus groups, set up suggestion boxes and held “side chats” with their co-workers. They then took all the insights they had collected and put forward an action plan to improve the company’s culture.

The trust that Brian placed in the Power Up Squad paid off, handsomely. By working as a team, members of the Power Up Squad were able to achieve some pretty impressive results. Employee trust rose by 7% and, in 2014, KFC Canada was ranked at No. 15 in Canada’s Great Places To Work survey. According to Brian, the Power Up Squad is still operational and still plays a strong role in the company’s employee experience programme. In 2018, KFC Canada again made the list of Canada’s Great Places To Work survey, placing at No. 11 on the list – the highest placement the company has achieved to date.

Accountability, people-first leadership, teamwork, fun, and employee empowerment – these are just a few of the key ingredients in KFC Canada’s recipe for employee engagement. If nothing else, KFC Canada teaches us that fun, hard work and profitability can co-exist in the same organisation.

The next time you pop into a KFC restaurant in Canada, don’t just think about the company’s secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices. Also, remember the company’s secret recipe for employee engagement.

By Ron Johnson

Author | Speaker | Storyteller (Co-founder, Blueprint Creative)
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