This year, more than 600,000 Wal-Mart workers will take off their Smiley buttons and vests and leave the company in search for better working conditions. When Fortune magazine unveiled its list of “100 Best Places to Work”, Wal-Mart wasn’t even on the list. Now, after months of being bashed for bad employee relations, Wal-Mart’s CEO used the setting of the retailer’s annual stockholder’s meeting this week to promise better treatment of its “associates.” But such promises are nothing new. Last year, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott said, “With more than 1.3 million associates, and plans to create many more new jobs, it is our responsibility to make sure we offer an attractive place to work, and continue to focus on fairness and equal access to pay and promotion.” This week, Scott promised to focus on the company’s “Office of Diversity”, which was set up almost two years ago. “Our goal is to make sure that the percentage of qualified minorities and women we promote is equal to the percentage who apply,” Scott said, “and overall in 2003 we met that goal.” To back up this commitment to diversity, Scott claimed his pay will depend on it. “If we do not meet our individual diversity goals for the year, our incentive compensation will be reduced as much as 7.5 percent,” Scott said. “Beginning next fiscal year, that penalty will increase to 15 percent.” Second, Scott said Wal-Mart will have a new “Corporate Compliance” team that will monitor the company’s compliance with the terms of employee pay, working hours and time for breaks. For example, Wal-Mart cashiers will not be sent an alert that reminds them it is time for their meal break. Cash registers will automatically shut down if the cashier does not respond to the alert. The company did not explain why its associates are unable to figure out when to go to lunch. Wal-Mart will also be informed when the time on their electronic time record is being adjusted. The company says its workers sometimes forget to clock in or out of work. Wal-Mart is being sued in 30 states for forcing its people to work “off the clock”, so this reform is designed to give workers more oversight of their own time record. Wal-Mart will also use new scheduling software to keep it from violating state work/hour requirements, because Wal-Mart has run into trouble by working its high school employees too many hours in the week, breaking state employmenet laws. Finally, Wal-Mart promised to implement a new job classification system and pay rate for all of its hourly associates. “No one’s pay will be reduced as a result of implementing this new structure,” Scott told stockholders, “but some associates will receive an increase.” According to PR Newswire, Wal-Mart contracted with the Hay Group, a human resources consulting firm, to analyze each hourly position, and to review local and national market analyses to make sure the company’s pay and practices were competitive when compared to similar retail positions. The company is also going to start a “Career Preference System” that will help associates learn about the availability of specific management jobs and geographic locations. Scott admitted that of all these new programs, “not a single one of those is earth-shattering, but when you put it all together, that is major progress.” All of these initiatives were designed to address the mounting criticism of Wal-Mart as a mediocre employer. One company critic in Inglewood, California described Wal-Mart as a “plantation.”
At their annual meeting, Wal-Mart told its workers, “We’re under scrutiny like we have never been before, and we’ve got to tell our story like we never have before. Don’t let someone else define us. Tell our story better,” said Betsy Reithmeyer, VP for corporate affairs. The economic destruction that defines Wal-Mart is one side of the story that the company’s workers will not want to tell. Before Wal-Mart workers will be able to “tell our story better”, they’re going to have to make their story better. Wal-Mart’s PR campaign has included ads that no longer talk about cheap underwear, but focus on employee atmospherics instead. They have set up their employees to write letters to the editor defending their company. It’s nothing short of an extreme make-over for Wal-Mart — something the public may find hardly credible.