Behind Chipotle’s Woes


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It’s not just the food that’s making people sick at Chipotle.

The restaurant chain’s workplace policies might also be to blame – and therein lies an important customer experience lesson.

Last fall, Chipotle grappled with an E.Coli outbreak that sickened dozens of customers across multiple states.  That would be a problem for any restaurant, but even more so for Chipotle given that fresh, locally-sourced ingredients have been central to its “food with integrity” brand positioning.

Then, in December, things got even worse when over 100 people got sick with the norovirus upon eating at one of the chain’s Boston area restaurants.  Media attention led to increased scrutiny of other Chipotle food safety incidents, including a norovirus outbreak that affected over 200 customers and employees at a California store last summer.

While health officials have yet to identify the specific source of the E.Coli outbreak, the culprit is almost certainly within Chipotle’s food supply chain, since the incident affected multiple stores across the country.  (In response, Chipotle is changing how it sources and prepares its food ingredients.)

In contrast to the E.Coli outbreak, the two norovirus incidents were traced back to specific Chipotle employees working at the stores.  These individuals, health officials discovered, were ill just prior to the outbreak, but came to work anyway.  Why might they do that?

It turns out that hourly employees at Chipotle are not offered paid sick leave like their salaried counterparts.  Inadvertently, the company had created an incentive for sick hourly workers (who are already paid a meager wage) to drag themselves out of bed and into the store, where they could infect customers and colleagues.

To address this issue, Chipotle will reportedly begin offering paid sick leave to hourly employees, one of several new food safety-related policies that will be introduced at all-employee training sessions scheduled for February 8.

(Interestingly, it was at a Human Resources convention last summer that Chipotle executives first expressed their intention to offer paid sick leave to hourly employees.  However, the company’s Careers website still shows that as a benefit reserved for salaried employees.)

The absence of paid sick leave – and the potential influence that has on employees (and, ultimately, customers) – is a great example of how behind-the-scenes workplace practices can adversely influence a company’s customer experience.

Despite their best intentions, employees’ behavior (towards each other, and towards customers) will necessarily be shaped by “internal infrastructure” that is arguably out of their control (but not out of executive control).

Food service employees who choose to work while ill, because they don’t get paid sick leave, are just one example of this dynamic.  There are many others:

  • Call center representatives who rush customers off the phone, because their performance is measured largely by how many calls they answer each day.
  • Employees who spurn teamwork, because their compensation is tied exclusively to their individual results, without regard to the broader performance of their unit.
  • Sales staff who make awkward attempts to cross-sell customers, because they must follow a strict sales script that allows little room for judgement.
  • Service staff who must repeatedly transfer callers to other areas, because their narrow job design doesn’t allow them to address common customer requests.
  • Employees who are slow to transact business for customers, because of the archaic point-of-sale systems they must navigate.

These are just a few illustrations of how workplace infrastructure – things like benefit offerings, measurement practices, reward programs, front-line systems, and job designs – can adversely affect the customer experience.

As Chipotle has discovered, these “backstage” components, which are largely hidden from customers’ view, can often influence the delivered experience just as much as more visible “onstage” elements (such as the design of a product or a retail store).

So, if you’re exploring ways to improve your company’s customer experience, remember this:

It’s quite possible those loyalty-sapping issues your customers see in front of the curtain can only be truly remedied by doing something different behind the curtain.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jon Picoult
As Founder of Watermark Consulting, Jon Picoult helps companies impress customers and inspire employees. An acclaimed keynote speaker, Jon’s been featured by dozens of media outlets, including The Wall St Journal and The New York Times. He’s worked with some of the world’s foremost brands, personally advising CEOs and executive teams.Learn more at or follow Jon on Twitter.


  1. As the former research director of a major regional fast food chain, my perspective is that the stinginess of medical coverage is, as much as anything else impacting employee behavior, a reflection of the organizational culture. All of the other customer-insensitive employee trait examples you’ve cited stem from the same cultural rood cause, i.e. a lack of customer-centricity.


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