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Welcome to Wal-Mart – We’re Mean to Our People

My daughter, Elizabeth, called one afternoon, but I couldn’t talk to her, because my new Wal-Mart – 1 mile from my house – was having its grand opening. She’ll tell you this didn’t sound like her mother, who likes Neiman Marcus and never cooked until only recently. This 39-year-old retail dynamo trails only Exxon Mobil in annual revenue and gives me the lowest prices in town for the best stuff. But admiration stops there.

My daughter, Elizabeth, called one afternoon, but I couldn’t talk to her, because my new Wal-Mart – 1 mile from my house – was having its grand opening. She’ll tell you this didn’t sound like her mother, who likes Neiman Marcus and never cooked until only recently.

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This 39-year-old retail dynamo trails only Exxon Mobil in annual revenue and gives me the lowest prices in town for the best stuff. But admiration stops there.

Legal analysts estimate Wal-Mart is sued more than any American entity except the U.S. government. I’m not nearly as concerned about slippery floors, icy parking lots, or those injured in a ‘Shopper’s Stampede’ as I am about this down home friendly business treating employees like trash. Rumors, allegations – call them what you want – but not getting an earned wage, working through lunch and rest breaks, applying inappropriate pressure to complete tasks…all this makes me want to ask my check-out person, “Are you okay?”

And now, despite the sorry treatment of its workers, this company just garnered the #1 spot on the 2004 Fortune magazine list of America’s Most Admired Companies (March 8, 2004) for the second year in a row. They got it, the article says, because they are a “dominant force in commerce, renowned for efficiencies, and a pervasive influence on everything from pop culture to consumer price index.”

I stand in front of audiences talking about how to build credibility through transparency, how personal and professional reputation is one in the same, and how you won’t garner success over the long haul without a solid gold reputation. The authors of Fortune’s article say we might be scratching our heads trying to figure out how they got to #1. No kidding.

Seems Wal-Mart is growing uneasy about their reputation and status too. “Shoppers could start feeling guilty about shopping with us,” says a spokeswoman in Jerry Useem’s article, “Should We Admire WalMart?” (Fortune, March 8, 2004, p. 118). The company is slathering on corrective action – new tv spots advertise happy employees instead of low prices, looking inward and taking criticism more seriously. How far will that go? That’s something I’ll be watching.

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I’m getting my nerve up. I just might lean over to the check-out woman this afternoon and ask, “So how are things around here? You doing okay?”

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