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14 Key HR Lessons Learned in 2021

A man is washing dishes in a restaurant kitchen.

​Looking back, 2021 has been a year in which HR professionals at all levels learned critical lessons, according to two HR chiefs in the fast-food industry—one of the hardest-hit sectors during the pandemic.

SHRM Online spoke with Marissa Andrada, Chipotle Mexican Grill's chief diversity, inclusion and people officer, and Kelly McCulloch, chief people officer at Taco Bell, and asked them to reflect on the key HR trends from the past year. These are the 14 most important HR lessons they learned in 2021 (in no particular order):

     1. Show employees the company's purpose beyond profits. People join and stay with a company only if their personal values are in line with those of the company, Andrada said. "The purpose can't just be about making money. The company must not only do well, but also do good." At Chipotle, that larger purpose is cultivating a better world via its mission and actions. Among Chipotle's key values are trust and authenticity.

     2. Find new ways to attract and retain talent. The key to attracting and retaining employees is to listen to their needs and accommodate them, McCulloch said. The Great Resignation is real—and Taco Bell is seeing and feeling it both at the corporate level and at its restaurants. Many employees are still hesitant to return to work. "We have to meet employees where they are," she noted.

     3. Create a safe work environment. This is about creating workspaces where employees feel safe both physically and psychologically, Andrada said. Chipotle learned this early in 2019, recognizing that the majority of its workforce was a combination of younger Millennials and Generation Z members who demand that their workspaces be something more than just a place to work.

     4. Be more flexible. Taco Bell's parent company, Yum!, regularly asks employees what they want, and one of the most common responses is flexibility, McCulloch said. "This requires us to think differently about how work gets done." Corporate employees said they wanted more flexibility on when they come to the office and when they work from home. Now they have no restrictions and can choose where they feel more comfortable working.

     5. Create an organization that rewards internal talent. The most-sustainable companies typically elevate employees from within and demonstrate a clear path to promotion, Andrada said. At Chipotle, a whopping 77 percent of general managers started as hourly crew members. The company is also trying to develop more tech workers internally by investing in their education and ability to learn and grow.

     6. Create an inviting workplace. One logical way to encourage employees to return to the workplace is to make the workplace look and feel more inviting, McCulloch said. That's one reason why, when the Taco Bell headquarters was shuttered during the pandemic, the building was remodeled. "We thought it was important to feel something new and fresh," she said. Departments were moved around so workers didn't return to the same spaces. The lobby was remodeled, break rooms were added and the employee lounge was redone.

     7. Offer opportunities to learn and grow. Chipotle has recently "doubled down" on learning and development, Andrada said. For example, in April, Chipotle announced it will offer debt-free degrees in agriculture as well as culinary arts and hospitality to all eligible employees in partnership with Guild Education, a top education and upskilling company.

     8. Watch out for the mental well-being of workers. Chipotle introduced access to mental health counselors for employees and their families in 2019. Taco Bell recently took action to help employees find a therapist by creating a no-charge teletherapy program. Under the program, which is being tested now, employees, whether corporate or front-line, can make unlimited appointments to meet virtually with a therapist.

     9. Offer easy and clear digital scheduling. Just as consumers want access to quick and easy digital actions, so do employees. Chipotle is in the midst of implementing a time-keeping system that allows employees to use their mobile phones to see their shifts two to three weeks in advance. If the date or time of the shift doesn't work for them, they can swap shifts with other workers, Andrada noted. "It's all about making sure that their schedules fit their lifestyles."

    10. Be inclusive. Hiring a workforce that is reflective of your customer base has never been more critical, Andrada said. "I hope diversity moves from being a buzzword." Meanwhile, Taco Bell has hired its first chief equity and inclusion officer to oversee everything from keeping tabs on the diversity of its suppliers to diversity among its franchisees, McCulloch said.

    11. Participate in a power shift to employees. The role of the HR department is no longer primarily administrative, according to Andrada, but is instead about engaging and retaining employees. "What experience are we creating for people in the organization? The power shift has gone from the organization to the employee."

    12. Respond to inflation. Wages should reflect the real world—and the current inflationary environment. At Chipotle, restaurants have a crew bonus program based on meeting the restaurant's quarterly sales goals (and other goals like safety and accuracy). If the crew meets or beats these goals, Andrada said, it can receive an extra full week's pay for the quarter or up to one month's worth of additional pay annually.

    13. Improve perks. Longer-term incentives—like stock equity grants at every level—have become more common at public companies, Andrada said. Other employee perks need to be attractive, too. Chipotle's front-line employees get a free meal each time they work and get 50 percent off meals when not working. "We want them to be ambassadors of their brand," she added.

    14. Support employees who are caregivers. More companies are finding ways to financially assist employees who are family caregivers—particularly those who are caring for parents, Andrada said. This could come through subsidizing memberships with services like or offering an allowance to support caregiving duties.

     Bruce Horovitz is a freelance writer based in Virginia.


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