business news in context, analysis with attitude

The New York Times has a piece suggesting that the presence of " irrepressibly friendly employees" at Trader Joe's may be a little bit of an illusion, and that the "patina of good cheer has masked growing strife and demoralization in some stores on the East Coast, far from the company’s base in California. A number of workers, known at Trader Joe’s as 'crew members,' complain of harsh and arbitrary treatment at the hands of managers, of chronic safety lapses and of an atmosphere of surveillance."

According to the story, "The morale issues appear concentrated at some of the company’s largest and busiest stores, including one where a union is trying to organize. Tensions have been heightened, according to several employees, by the pressure to remain upbeat and create a 'Wow customer experience,' which is defined in the company handbook as 'the feelings a customer gets about our delight that they are shopping with us'."

Indeed, an unfair labor practices charge was filed on Thursday with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) by Thomas Nagle, described as "a longtime employee of the Trader Joe’s store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side," who says he "was repeatedly reprimanded because managers judged his smile and demeanor to be insufficiently 'genuine.' He was fired in September for what the managers described as an overly negative attitude."

Some experts say that a policy that requires people to be unflaggingly positive with managers, fellow employees and customers may in fact "be illegal because federal labor law gives employees the right to discuss working conditions and the merits of joining a union with one another, and to complain about working conditions to the public, including customers."

Trader Joe's disputes the claims by Nagle, saying, "We are committed to maintaining a great and safe environment in which to work,” adding, “As part of that commitment, we promote an open and honest environment that encourages questions, suggestions or concerns to be raised.”
KC's View:
Interesting. Not every Trader Joe's employee agrees with the complaint, but there are a number who tell the Times that it is rooted in truth.

It is not hard for me to imagine that Trader Joe's could be the kind of company where they breathe their own exhaust - that they are so committed to their culture that they see any discordant notes as a cancer that needs to be cut out. This isn't out of malevolence ... just commitment, and maybe an inability to listen intently and recognize that the people who dissent often give companies the greatest opportunity to improve and adapt.