Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Walmart’s Latest Employee-Relations Debacle

A Kemptville, Ontario, Walmart employee was fired  this week after urging a customer to not leave his dog in his car while he shopped. The story quickly grew legs and amounts to yet another PR black eye for the company. 
Walmart had enjoyed a wave of decent PR for a while, but now it finds itself back in a defensive posture–both because of this incident and also for other employee-relations horror stories that play to a now-familiar narrative.  In fact, it’s hard to stay on top of all the negative stories about the big-box retailer. However, this particular story might have been avoided had the company weighed its options more carefully and recognized the value of quality employee-relations.
The lesson for PR pros is to think ahead. That may seem to be a simple notion, but when you dive into Walmart’s handling of the situation, it seems clear that management responded in a knee-jerk fashion.
The employee admits that she directly addressed the customer who allegedly left his dog in the car. She also indicates that the customer responded with anger and claimed that he would not shop at the store again. Later that day the she was called into her manager’s office and told that such issues should be taken up with him directly. Unsatisfied with this solution, she instead declared that the next time she would contact the police. Following that statement, she alleges, she was terminated.
The manager was correct to ask his employee to openly communicate troublesome situations with management, and to avoid confronting the company’s stakeholders directly. Where he arguably went wrong was in terminating an employee who was acting on a humane impulse—rather than exploring alternative solutions or council from human resources. Not only that, but the manager’s decision to let his employee go helps reaffirm a popular narrative that Walmart cares considerably more about its bottom line than its employees.
Walmart (and others) should consider ahead of time how actions can impact reputation. And that goes for a company's entire personnel—from a store greeter all the way up to the CEO.