· 5 min read · Features

Olympics Special 6/7: interview with Jez Langhorn VP people at McDonald's

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If London is going to be the city in the world with the most focus on it when the Olympic Games are in full swing, the largest fast-food retailer in the Olympics village – McDonald’s – looks set to be the busiest restaurant on the planet.

That's according to its vice president of people, Jez Langhorn (pictured).

McDonald's has had a contract in place with the International Olympics Committee (IOC) to be the official restaurant of the Olympic Games, since 1976. And in January this year, at the Winter Youth Olympics in Innsbruck, it extended said contract to 2020. "The story behind the sponsorship dates back to the 1976 Winter Olympics," Langhorn beams. "The US sportspeople were feeling homesick, so McDonald's flew them in some hamburgers." The rest is history.

This year, as the world sets up camp in the UK capital, McDonald's, which will be operating four restaurants specially built for the event (two in the public areas, one for athletes and one in the media centre), expects to serve one in every 10 meals to Olympic visitors.

And, defying press accusations a fast food restaurant should not be the Olympics' official restaurant provider, McDonald's is serving chips, burgers, organic milk and eggs, all sourced from within the UK. In a second level of its sponsorship, McDonald's won the contract to recruit and train the 'games makers' - volunteers who will help at the Olympic Village during the course of the events - culminating in the resourcing of 70,000 people.

"This was the biggest single recruitment drive since the second world war," explains Langhorn. "Not only did my HR team recruit all the volunteers, but it recruited the people who interviewed them as well. I have two members of my training staff on secondment at LOCOG [London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games] until after the Olympics, writing the training programmes, induction and onboarding."

As HR magazine was going to press, the lucky volunteers successful in their application had received confirmation they had been selected for the Games. Training for all 70,000, as well as 12,000 LOCOG staff, is due to start this month, provided by - you guessed it - McDonald's and delivered on site at its UK head office in East Finchley, London.

"We launched at Wembley Arena, with orientation days for 10,000 people at a time," says a visibly excited Langhorn. "We hope to invite Seb Coe [LOCOG's chairman] and some Olympic athletes as well."

But in a bid to develop McDonald's Olympics - and legacy - connection even further, and in an unprecedented move by any Olympics sponsor in history, Langhorn reveals that the company will offer each and every one of the volunteers that live in an Olympic borough and who are not in employment, education or training (NEET), to have the opportunity to receive a City & Guilds Level Two qualification - equivalent to a GCSE - in the principles of customer services, following the games. This will be provided at the company's expense.

As part of LOCOG's Personal Best initiative to help young unemployed people the scheme will also guarantee that any young person not in education or training that passes the City & Guilds examination will receive a job interview for an apprenticeship position with McDonald's, leading to further qualifications awarded by its in-house accredited university and, of course, a full-time job.

Finally, McDonald's has agreed with People 1st, the sector skills council for hospitality, to provide the organisation with all its training materials for the City & Guilds qualification free of charge, to pass onto its own members. And considering this will be the first qualification of its kind for the hospitality sector, it is a considerable donation.

But are McDonald's plans purely altruistic? I put the question to Langhorn. "Our people team [HR] is very well known in HR circles," he says. "But I still think there is a perception gap about McDonald's as an employer. These initiatives could be seen as a 'perception buster' and a chance for us to show our skills as an employer."

He adds: "This isn't about increasing the numbers of people that apply to work for us - we are not looking to bump that up. But 60% of our branches are franchises, small businesses embedded in local communities.

"We are big employers on the high street and part of our business plan is to share our success with the local people that work with us. We don't know yet how many of these volunteers will apply for jobs with us, but we'll manage it." Langhorn and his team have also put Olympics initiatives in place for the restaurant's own staff. In November, McDonald's launched the Olympic Champion Crew Super Team event at its Strand restaurant, Charing Cross, to select the squad to work in its restaurants at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The scheme was designed to select McDonald's best employees from across the UK to work at the four Olympic Park restaurants for the duration of London 2012.

The 6,800 staff, chosen from branches around the UK, had to demonstrate their speed, customer service and ability to work as part of a new team in a fast-paced environment to deliver 'the ultimate customer experience' to games spectators.

Former England rugby player and coach Clive Woodward gave participants advice on how to have the energy, stamina and teamwork needed to produce their best performance under pressure.

In the end, 1,900 staff were selected to work at the Olympics and they will take over a hotel booked up by the company and will receive a mobile phone and tickets to some of the sporting fixtures.

"To work in the park is like working airside at an airport," says Langhorn. "It's a massive undertaking. These will be the busiest restaurants in the world and we want to have staff there that have honed their skills over time. We want to reward our best staff and, of course, there will be vacancies in the stores from which they have come," Langhorn says.

The company recruited 10,000 people in 2011. In 2012, it plans to increase its workforce by a further 2,500, through creating new jobs.

McDonald's also has an Olympic 'engagement site' on its staff intranet to add interest for employees - so they can share the sponsorship "excitement" with customers. Langhorn says, so far, it has had more than one million clicks from staff.

"We also have 20 spots out of 100 legs for the Olympic torch relay," he adds. "So we have launched a peer- nominated competition to 'carry the torch' within local communities. This will not be for directors, but crew members and office staff - and we want to celebrate their achievements in a fair and transparent way. So we have asked staff to put forward colleagues they think are demonstrating our core values."

According to People 1st, across the UK, approximately one in every 14 employees works in the hospitality sector and with the Mayor of London's Olympic Legacy Board of Advisors hoping the games in London will boost the tourism trade in the UK, customer service is something that will come under the spotlight.

Langhorn hopes the initiatives and plans put in place by his HR team will allow McDonald's to play its part in generating a more positive future for his sector, and indeed the entire economy, not just during the Olympics in London but in the months and years to come, as the UK steers itself out of uncertain times.

"The Olympics will bring lots of positives for the country and, in particular, the hospitality sector," he muses. "The UK doesn't have the best reputation for customer service. There is a lingering prejudice about those working in this sector, that they are only doing this because it is their only option.

"The Olympics will provide a great opportunity to show the world what we can do - but it won't just happen. This year is the summer of sport and if employers get it right, it will be a chance to celebrate what great service and hospitality can be - and by welcoming the world, we can show them how good we are."