Monday, April 9, 2007

Picking a Winner Isn’t Easy

It’s hard to come up with the name to put on the plaque of the Most Insensitive Retail Employer award. Should it be RadioShack for sending out 400 termination notices by e-mail? Or should Circuit City cop the trophy for chopping 3,400 mostly store-level workers because they earned too much and could be replaced by lower-priced personnel?

There are other contenders, but those two are the clear front-runners. Why? Because they have chosen to do things the “new” way. They broke with tradition, and in so doing they have opened our eyes to retailing, nay, all business, practices of the 21st century.

I’m often accused of being a bleedin’ heart liberal, especially when it comes to labor issues. But the reality is, many companies must downsize to survive and there is no easy way to accomplish that onerous task. We’ve downsized at our parent company in the last year (thankfully, not at Chain Store Age). I can tell you from personal observation that “gut-wrenching” doesn’t come close to describing the pain everyone in our organization experienced.

As business changes, the old ways of doing things evolve as well. Sure it was seemingly heartless for RadioShack to send out e-mail termination notices. But those e-mails were not the first notices those affected received. The whole company had been made aware of the pending reductions and how they would be communicated. It looked bad to outsiders, and probably insiders as well, but the layoff notices were not blindsided actions.

Circuit City, on the other hand, has a lot of explaining to do, and it is likely to do so in a courtroom as several fired workers are alleging age discrimination. Since Circuit City fired workers with above-average seniority who were making the most money, it stands to reason that those affected would be mostly older workers.

One of the arguments circulating in news stories about the Circuit City move is the impact less-experienced sales associates might have on the company’s revenue potential and customer service. Too early to tell, but I’m not one who subscribes to the theory that new, younger staffers will lack product knowledge. The young, after all, are generally more tech-savvy than their older counterparts, so there shouldn’t be any loss there, though they might lack the selling skills that come only from experience.

More telling might be Circuit City’s ability to attract talented personnel; why would anyone feel comfortable working for a company that publicly has demonstrated a disdain for their capacity to earn a decent wage? Why would anyone choose to work long-term for a company that publicly has turned its back on loyalty?

Labor strife is all around us in retail. Supermarket unions are threatening to strike again in Southern California. Wal-Mart acknowledges it monitors employee e-mails and phone usage, a perfectly legal practice that many companies employ. Wal-Mart is accused of being unfair to women, yet the National Association for Female Executives (NAFE) named Wal-Mart Stores one of the “2007 Top 35 Companies for Executive Women." NAFE selected the company for its programs and initiatives designed to support female participation and leadership in the workplace. Even Costco, that paradigm of good worker relations, is being sued for allegedly discriminating against women when promotions are considered.

No, it is not easy picking a winner of the Most Insensitive Retail Employer award. Applications NOT cheerfully accepted.

—Murray Forseter

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