A Culture of Disrespect

When my co-worker tried to dodge a Happy Meal box that was thrown at her, I realized what kind of people I was dealing with. 

The customer was about to throw a slushie when another McDonald’s employee pulled out her phone and threatened to call the police. This was enough to scare off the box thrower. 

Illustration Jacqueline Martinez Fast food
Illustration by Jacqueline Martinez

This particular ordeal began because the customer didn’t like how many times we repeated her order back to her.  

Welcome to the wonderful world of fast food. 

Customers are frequently disrespectful and sometimes verbally abusive to fast-food workers. This poor treatment has manifested itself into workers in concerning ways. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association has found the food service industry has the highest rate of drug use, with an estimated 16.9% of workers abusing substances.  

My younger sister works at Subway, and she once told me about how a customer made her cry. I haven’t cried yet, but plenty of customers have brought me close to it. A customer explaining to me that everyone I worked with was an idiot is one painful example.  

Some customers see this as totally acceptable behavior. Our society has been conditioned to view fast-food workers as modern day peasants — people who are paid very little and therefore are entitled to very little respect. It’s not just teenagers who are treated this way. According to the National Employment Law Project, 40% of fast-food workers are over 25 years old. 

I see maybe 200 customers in a single day, and with that sample size, you can start to figure out certain characteristics of what makes a rude customer. It’s cheap food, so plenty of customers don’t have a lot of money. Maybe they work dead-end jobs that don’t pay much more than mine. In their worlds, they are the downtrodden and disrespected, too. They know what it’s like to work a job where customers treat them like dirt. 

However, when they pull up to the drive-thru window, they’re the ones with the power. For the first time in their day, they get to interact with people they don’t have to be nice to. They wield this power to yell at strangers when I give them the wrong size of fry, or the wrong order. Never mind that I was also running around with a broom at the time, hustling to take an order. Because if I told them to wait, they would have another reason to yell at me. 

These customers seem to believe that customer service really means customer servant. Because they know they can get away with it. What can employees do? Some are younger than 16, a couple are older than 60, but all are forced to pretend that the customer is always right. So we stand still and apologize as we’re told we are incompetent and should be ashamed of ourselves.  

For that, I make $10 an hour.  

Most of us were told at least once or twice in school we needed to get our act together, or we would be “flipping burgers” when we were adults. So, we shouldn’t be surprised when society treats the actual burger flippers as failures, dropouts and people too stupid or lazy to be doing anything else. Even though our job can be just as stressful and difficult as other higher paying ones. 

Naturally this leads to the employees showing up to work every day with all the enthusiasm of a death row inmate. How can workers be expected to take pride in working in such harsh circumstances? That lack of pride causes a high turnover rate; new, young employees stream in seemingly every week, which leads to new people making mistakes and being berated for it. 

People who have stormed into a McDonald’s to “give the manager a piece of my mind” because there was cheese on their hamburger might see their behavior as totally reasonable. Fast-food employees are paid to do their job — if they make a mistake, they should know about it, right? Well maybe, if you’re being respectful. Too many customers think that order mishaps give them the right to be a jerk. 

Everyone is entitled to a certain level of respect – to not be yelled at unnecessarily, not to be scolded or called names. The job they do does not change that. What someone is paid, or what uniform they wear, is not a license to treat them worse than someone else. It’s not like anyone ever throws stuff at their bankers. 

Here’s a very simple way of looking at it. Would you treat your co-workers like this? Friends? People on the street? If you say no, then reassess how you act toward people who work in fast food because they aren’t any different. 

If you say yes, here’s your burger, have a nice day!