Wal-Mart is up to its briefs in legal problems, but the company wasted no time this week, in the middle of its hyped Annual Meeting, to threaten legal retaliation against the Center for Community and Corporate Ethics. The CCCE began sending pre-recorded phone message into households in the Bentonville, Arkansas area this week. The message aroused the legal team at Wal-Mart as well. According to the Bentonville Daily Record, here is the phone message that awoke the retail giant: “Hello, I’m calling with a special message for anyone who works for Wal-Mart. As you know, Wal-Mart has had a number of serious legal and ethical problems. To help make Wal-Mart a better and more fair place to work, the Center for Community and Corporate Ethics is seeking anyone who knows of wrongdoing within Wal-Mart. You will be treated with complete confidentiality. Call toll free at 1-800-577-1635. Again, 1-800-577-1635. This has been a message from the Center for Community and Corporate Ethics. You can learn more at WalmartWatch (.) com. Thank you for your time and assistance.” The website mentioned is sponsored by the CCCE. Wal-Mart responded to the campaign by sending the CCCE a cease and desist letter. A Wal-Mart spokesman told the newspaper, “We have alerted our associates that these calls are being made. We think this is a desperate attempt to try to collect information and embarrass the company.” The retailer obviously is hoping that the phone number given does not ring, yet the company itself recently set up an “Ethics Hotline” for employees at Wal-Mart to do the same thing — report cases of ethical abuse — so the company is criticising CCCE for doing the same thing the company has already done. One of Wal-Mart main complaints in their letter was that the CCCE “designed the tone and content of your computer-generated telephone message to create confusion about the identity of the caller…We have in fact received reports from individuals who have mistakenly believed that Wal-Mart sponsored the message.” However, the message clearly states it is sponsored by the CCCE. The CCCE responded to Wal-Mart’s threat by stating, “We will continue the (calls) on the schedule we have planned.” Wal-Mart also complained that the phone calls represented an “uninvited solicitation of legal complaints with automated phone messages”, which they say is not allowable under Arkansas law. They also suggested that the automatic calls might be illegal, because they “mask” a caller’s location from residential caller ID — yet Wal-Mart has used automated telemarketing services across the country in many ballot question races they have financed. Finally, Wal-Mart complained that the calls were intentionally timed to coincide with the company’s annual meeting, to which the CCCE agreed, “It was absolutely timed to coincide with the shareholders meeting.”
The CCCE noted that Wal-Mart “is a company with mounting legal and public relations problems,” The group noted that the ethics campaign is likely to be broadened to reach a national audience. “We are keenly interested in people’s responses,” the CCCE said. “Our phone lines have been absolutely nuts.” Wal-Mart could save everyone a lot of trouble by just making public the transcripts of the ethics calls it receives from its workers on its company Ethics Hotline. In the February, 2005 issue of “Wal-Mart World”, a newsletter for its workers, the retailer introduced its Office of Ethics, encouraging associates to call the Ethics Office “to report an ethics allegation”, assuring workers that “you may request to remain anonymous.” The company told its workers “it is your responsibility to report unethical behavior.” Wal-Mart admits that “there are gray areas where the difference between right and wrong isn’t clear.” In this CCCE case, a Wal-Mart employee who thinks he or she has witnessed an ethics violation, is doing just what the company said it was their responsibility to do: report the allegation. They just happen to be calling a different number than the one Wal-Mart recommends. So CCCE is only reinforcing the need to report ethical lapses. For anyone who wishes to report ethical violations to Wal-Mart as well as CCCE, the Wal-Mart Ethics Office can be reached at 800-963-8442 (800WMETHIC) or [email protected] You can even fax them ethical issues at 479-204-9865. For an earlier story on Wal-Mart’s Office of Ethics, search Newsflash by “ethics”.