Does KFC have a secret recipe for employee engagement?

What is the secret behind the success of KFC's employee engagement strategy?

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“The KFC culture appeared as valuable as its mysterious ‘Blend S’ and a winner’s medallion awarded for employee excellence, is coveted like an Olympic gold medal.”

The BBC’s ‘Billion Dollar Chicken Shop’ is the latest fly on the wall documentary to take cameras behind the counter and into the lives of KFC’s staff. What stood out immediately from this television programme was the positive, happy attitude of their staff that, despite generally receiving minimum wage salaries, were motivated by the praise of their colleagues and a vibrant culture of recognition. The KFC culture appeared as valuable as its mysterious ‘Blend S’ and a winner’s medallion awarded for employee excellence, is coveted like an Olympic gold medal.

Today’s KFC brand started in the great depression of the 1930’s and was the dream of one man, Harland Sanders, who saw the potential to franchise his fried chicken concept and the first franchised Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant opened in Utah in 1952. In 2014, KFC sold over 700 million pieces of fried chicken in the UK and enjoys a global turnover of 23 billion dollars. The success of the concept is truly global and its single largest market is China where it pioneered the western style of fast food. Great brands are built on emotional engagement and to succeed for so long and continue to grow requires more than just a trade secret blend of 11 herbs and spices.

KFC must be smiling as it brings home buckets of awards for its employment practices. The fast food restaurant has drummed up accolade after accolade celebrating three consecutive annual wins at Britain’s Top Employer Awards by 2014 and the brand has appeared in the Top 25 UK Best Workplaces list for five years in a row. It is these successes that must have prompted the BBC to investigate further and film its serialized documentary examining its success.  James Watts, Chief People Officer at Yum Brands (KFC’s Parent Company) said: “We believe that as each year goes by we move closer to our ambition of becoming the best company in the UK for training and development, and to being famous as THE great place to work.”

KFC’s HR strategy of positive praise celebrates a job well done and reaps benefits through employee performance and sense of wellbeing. The ‘all hands to the deck’ approach means that managers are not averse to rolling up their sleeves when the going gets tough which proves to be a great leveler and improves staff morale. Employee recognition pays huge dividends when individuals feel valued and themed incentives like ‘winners medals’ are a physical confirmation of their personal efforts and the context of a team dynamic.  The sense of group mentality in each restaurant is palpable and each franchise competes nationally to prove itself by achieving performance targets and the honour of recognition at the annual General Manager Conference Awards. Can positive praise, performance recognition and good line management be the secret ingredients to a culture of engagement? As one KFC employee said. “It’s not rocket science, it’s Chicken and Chips, that’s all it is!”

The government backed movement ‘Engage for Success’ identifies four themes “Strategic narrative, engaging managers, employee voice and organisational integrity” that collectively contribute to successful employee engagement. These themes emerged from extensive research conducted by David Macleod and Nita Clarke published in 2009 as ‘Engaging for success’.

‘Engage for Success’ summarises these themes on their helpful website – http://www.engageforsuccess.org in the following bullet points –

  • “Visible, empowering leadership providing a strong strategic narrative about the organisation, where it’s come from and where it’s going.”
  • “Engaging managers who focus their people and give them scope, treat their people as individuals and coach and stretch their people.”
  • “There is employee voice throughout the organisations, for reinforcing and challenging views, between functions and externally, employees are seen as central to the solution.” 
  • “There is organisational integrity – the values on the wall are reflected in day to day behaviours. There is no ‘say –do’ gap”.

These four enablers of engagement were clearly observable in BBC’s ‘The Billion Dollar Chicken Shop’. What ever your feelings are towards the fast food industry it’s impact on the nations economy and the number of people it employs and supports is phenomenal. KFC employs 24000 people in UK and Ireland, has over 870 restaurants (all equipped as learning zones) and promotes 1500 people each year and the fast food brand has created an advanced apprentice scheme with City & Guilds. KFC fosters a strong family bond where personal development and recognition prove more motivational than salary. Not a bad legacy for a brand that started as a road side café in Corbin, Kentucky back in 1935.

Paul Hitchens, the author of this blog, delivers the Core Values Workshop and the Employer Brand Workshop with Symposium.

About Paul Hitchens

Speaker, author and branding guru, Paul Hitchens, will share his key insights into how your employer brands can be managed and enhanced at this workshop

Paul Hitchens is the Author of ‘Create the Perfect Brand’, a ‘Teach Yourself’ guidebook to branding. He has extensive experience in branding, including manufacturing and service brands. He has created and implemented many brands for new business ventures, start-ups and established organisations. Following a successful agency career that included an award-winning recruitment campaign at the PA Consulting Group and Automotive Branding at Wolf-Olins, he became a founding partner of the Brand Consultancy Verve Interactive Ltd.

Paul is a course director with the Chartered Institute of Marketing and has lectured at The Henley Business School, presenting the brand module for the MSc in Strategic Marketing Leadership. He has contributed articles on branding to business journals including Management Today and Start Your Business Magazine and has been interviewed on both Television and Radio regarding brands.

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