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The war of words between Wal-Mart and its deposed marketing executive Julie Roehm got ramped up again yesterday, as she accused the retailer of concocting a “smear campaign” against her, “insinuating things about my personal life and pretending I violated some code of ethics with advertisers, all to distract from the reality that it didn't want my form of progressive marketing. In addition to refusing to honor my contract, Wal-Mart has used anonymous witnesses and employed selective use of email, taken way out of context. When you patch together pieces of messages sent at different times, you can create pretty much any story you want."

Roehm joined the retailer in early 2006 as the company saw her as a way of helping it develop a more contemporary, sophisticated image. However, she was fired and accused of ethically questionable behavior and of having an inappropriate relationship with Sean Womack, VP-communications architecture. Both Roehm and Womack have consistently denied the charges, and Roehm has filed a counter-suit against Wal-Mart.

Meanwhile, a page-one story in the New York Times this morning makes clear that the Wal-Mart vs. Roehm battle is part of a broader culture war being waged at Wal-Mart, noting that the retailer, “renowned to outsiders for its elbows-out business tactics, is known internally for its bare-knuckled no-expense-spared investigations of employees who break its ironclad ethics rules. Over the last five years, Wal-Mart has assembled a team of former officials from the CIA, FBI and Justice Department “ who conduct “elaborate, at times globetrotting, investigations.” The Times writes that “the investigators — whose résumés evoke Langley, Va., more than Bentonville, Ark. — serve as a rapid-response team that aggressively polices the nation’s largest private employer, enforcing Wal-Mart’s modest by-the-books culture among its army of 1.8 million employees.”

The Times notes that while Wal-Mart hardly is alone in being conscious of how personal misbehavior affects productivity, “few companies are as prickly — or unforgiving — about its employees’ wayward behavior, a legacy of its frugal founder, Sam Walton, who equated misconduct with inefficiency that would cost customers money.”

In the statement released by Roehm, she says:

“When I look back over the whirlwind of the last 15 months of my life, here's what I see: I left a successful career in Detroit, uprooted my family to move to Arkansas, and took on a demanding job at Wal-Mart as part of its shift in marketing strategy. I threw myself into the job, traveling constantly and working tirelessly to master several components at the same time. I saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees and costs right off the bat, just using my experience in selecting and negotiating advertising spots. I engineered a thorough and meticulous campaign to hire an advertising agency, and guided a company that had never been through the process before in selecting what everyone, from outside research parties to internal participants, agreed was the best candidate.

“But somewhere along the way, senior executives at Wal-Mart seemed to feel that maybe change wasn't such a good idea. Perhaps some did not like following or taking the advice of a woman. I received no guidance, direction, or communication about any unhappiness with my work. Yet I unceremoniously was removed from my job without explanation, and then informed that Wal-Mart would not even honor the terms of a separation agreement.”

And, she writes:

“Obviously, I am at a great disadvantage. I don't have the same resources as the world's largest company. They outman me with private investigators, computer hackers, ex-CIA operatives, former FBI men, and an army of public relations operatives. My family is eating through savings intended for our son's college tuition, as we try to navigate a legal dispute with one of America's most successful corporations. Yet all I am asking for is a fair honoring of the contractual agreement I had with Wal-Mart.

“If I had believed that I had done anything wrong, I would not have filed suit for payment on terms spelled out in my separation agreement. When I filed my suit, I did not publicize it. In fact, it took over a month for anyone to learn that the suit even existed. I was not trying to embarrass the company. Who is trying to embarrass whom?

“My family and I want to move forward. We have reason to fear, I know, from a company that thinks nothing of publicly destroying families. I want to continue my career in marketing. I know I have a lot to offer, and I don't want to waste time looking backward.”

Mona Williams, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, responded to Roehm’s charges to the Wall Street Journal: "Our counterclaim makes the facts clear. No amount of smokescreen is going to change that."

Apparently, Roehm and Womack hardly are alone in (at least allegedly) giving in to their impulses. In an interview with the Times, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott acknowledged that Wal-Mart’s security team has been unusually busy lately. “You almost have to laugh,” he said of executives engaging in egregious conduct. “You can’t make this stuff up.”
KC's View:
Some folks would have us believe that Wal-Mart is selective in its enforcement, but the Times story would seem to make clear that the retailer is both ruthless and unforgiving – no matter who the culprits may be. After all, the same security team that went after Roehm also were responsible for the investigation that resulted in the downfall of former vice chairman Tom Coughlin, who was accused and eventually convicted of fraud.

And we also think that Roehm’s latest statement is interesting in that it does not specifically address the allegations of sexual misconduct, but rather plays the sympathy card by noting that her son’s college savings may be at risk. While she denied the charges initially, the release of emails using words like “kiss” sort of compromises that position. (The only time we can ever remember using the word “kiss” in the workplace was when we angrily suggested to an irritating co-worker that he could kiss another part of our anatomy…and in retrospect, that probably was an immature, impolitic and inappropriate comment to make. Though it felt appropriate at the time.)

That said, we have to admit that this whole story makes us a little queasy.

We agree that when people engage in personal relationships in the workplace, there is the potential for conflict. But let’s face it. When people engage in any sort of personal relationship anywhere, there is the potential for conflict.

People are people, and especially when people work many hours for a demanding employer, the workplace is where personal relationships are formed. And we’re not sure that playing “Big Brother” is the most adult way of dealing with these issues.

As far as the Roehm situation is concerned, we remain utterly convinced that while a separation from the company may have been inevitable because of the personal issues, the circumstances would have been a lot less ugly (meaning, Wal-Mart would have paid her off) if it was perceived that her approach to advertising and marketing was successful.

It wasn’t, and in all likelihood that was the real sin that Roehm committed.