The now-contentious debate surrounding the minimum wage will only intensify. The fervor is unlikely to fizzle à la Occupy Wall Street as vocal workers are more organized and have financial backing and training from unions. President Barack Obama is a proponent of increasing the federal minimum wage and called the growing gap between rich and poor "the defining challenge of our time."
What remains to be seen is whether businesses will just ride out the pummeling to their reputation or step up and show leadership.
Savvy tactics employed by frustrated employees and their union backers are garnering a lot of media attention and effectively putting a human face to the issue while creating a lot of negative publicity for brands, particularly McDonald's, Wendy's, and Walmart. The response on the brand side has been surprisingly little, and in a few cases, mishandled.
But, more importantly, the response misses an opportunity to address a key issue at a time when we often hear, especially at huge companies, that employees are their best brand ambassadors.
Retailers invest billions to remain relevant to external stakeholders. New packaging and products, store improvements, and a more effective and sustainable supply chain are all necessary investments to address an evolving marketplace.
But, internally, employees are changing too. According to the Department of Labor, 36% of fast-food workers are older than 20 with kids. The face of staffers at a quick-service restaurant looks less like the teenager at his after-school job and more like a family's primary breadwinner. And that may not be a bad thing for an industry plagued with high turnover and a viral stream of gross misbehavior by often-teenage staffers.
Is as much due diligence being paid to employee research as there is to customer research? The fight for better wages could be the launchpad for a revamp of the employee-hiring structure or an opportunity to take a serious look at what minimum wage means in terms of employee productivity and retention. At the very least, employers should provide some insight as to why it would not be "good business" to increase wages. Saying nothing makes workers feel not only underpaid, but also ignored.
It is not the time to silently watch media coverage of protesting staffers or wait for legislators to decide the issue, but rather to be proactive and display leadership that builds corporate reputation.
Bernadette Casey is executive editor of PRWeek. She can be contacted at email@example.com.