After 12 years as Chipotle's head of people support, Mike Ferguson is moving on, taking a different tack to people management at TaskUs, a global outsourcing and technology company. But after helping to build Chipotle into an organization with more than 70,000 employees in five countries, he's particularly familiar with the challenges of the role — and its opportunities.
"The lowest unemployment rate in 50 years has put pressure on all employers in the U.S.," Ferguson told HR Dive in an email. "This challenge has also provided an unprecedented opportunity for HR to have a critically important and strategic role."
A 3.7% unemployment rate is indeed no laughing matter for most employers. But what "strategic" looks like varies widely from company to company — and for those with a large hourly workforce, change has been especially stark now that retention threatens employer success. Ferguson's new job is in a totally different field. But experience being "employee-first" will carry over, he noted. And Chipotle undertook a number of employee-first experiments during his tenure.
Employee development played an important part in Ferguson's role at Chipotle and is among the things he is most proud of from his time there, he said. In good time, too; nowadays, even hourly employees expect development as part of the value proposition at their organizations, various studies have shown.
"Our general manager internal promotion rate was well above 90% for the majority of my tenure," he said. A big driver of that success? The Chipotle College Assistance Plan, made possible through a partnership with growing industry name Guild Education. Employees can receive college credit for finishing their Chipotle training, enroll in a partner college and receive discounted tuition.
Training had to be a clear part of the company's culture due in part to a number of food poisoning outbreaks that required the company to retrain employees on food safety (and notably, announce they were doing so). But today, workers demand more of their employers and are especially critical of development programs, according to a report from Harvard Business Publishing.
Don't be afraid of being down in the trenches
If anything, Ferguson's time at Chipotle taught him why first-hand experience with an employee's day-to-day work matters.
"My team would work shifts in the restaurant every year," he said. "Just about every person who came back to the office after their restaurant shift had new ideas on how we could improve our front-line employee experience."
Many of the company's best programs and processes came out of those efforts, he said.
Recognize the power of 'being ridiculous'
Moving to TaskUs, that focus on employee experience hasn't faded, Ferguson said. After all, in any customer-facing organization — be it food service or otherwise — a solid employee base leads to a strong customer experience.
"Be Ridiculous is one of our core values at TaskUs," he said. "A ridiculously incredible employee experience will allow us to attract and retain the best employees in the industry."
That push to "be ridiculous" is one aspect of the new job that Ferguson is most looking forward to. How that looks, however, has changed dramatically during his time in HR, he said. Technology has transformed how HR can deliver the employee experience, and new digital approaches are revolutionizing the industry. But success still partly relies on some older wisdom.
"I believe striving to do right by your employees, being their advocate and developing programs to continually develop and grow their skills will always be a winning strategy," Ferguson said