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The trouble with Walmart: a cautionary tale for leaders everywhere

Updated: Apr 12, 2022

On 14th September 2021, Beth McGrath picked up the tannoy at the Walmart store she worked at to make an announcement. She also started recording a video on her phone.

“Attention Walmart shoppers and associates, my name is Beth from Electronics. I’ve been working at Walmart for almost five years and I can say that everyone here is overworked and underpaid.”

Clearly this wasn’t a typical store announcement. McGrath continued:

“The attendant policy is bulls--t, we are treated from management and customers poorly every day [sic]. Whenever we have a problem with it, we’re told that we’re replaceable. I’m tired of the constant gaslighting. This company treats their elderly associates like s--t.

To Jarred, our store manager, you’re a pervert. Greta and Kathy, shame on y’all for treating your associates the way you do. I hope you don’t speak to your families the way you speak to us. Shout out to Kommenique, Patty, Chardel [our spellings may be incorrect here - do notify us of corrections] and so many more, Walmart doesn’t deserve y’all. F--k management and f--k this job. I quit.”

On one level, this is a powerful individual act, and we applaud McGrath for speaking truth to power with such passion and courage. McGrath was very deliberate in making her resignation public, not just to the people in store that day but also using the internet to call out the store’s management for their behaviour.

But there’s lots here for leaders in organisations around the world, not just at Walmart, to pay attention to.

Bad managers, or issues in the system?

A public announcement like this brings up lots of questions – about what on earth the leaders in an organisation think is going on if they don’t see something like this coming, and perhaps more importantly, about the abuse of power, lack of respect, ageism, sexism and total disregard for the people working for you, all of which McGrath spoke to in her announcement.

It’s extremely easy to finger point and assume that that particular store’s managers are the problem. But McGrath’s announcement clearly indicates that there are multiple systemic issues going on: policies that don’t support the people working for Walmart; the turning of a blind eye when hiring or promoting that results in people being in leadership roles who should not be in them; endemic ageism, sexism and even misogyny. In other words, a toxic culture and organisational system.

As we’ve shared before, a principle of systems thinking is working with the idea that if something is happening in one part of a system, it might be playing out elsewhere too. And this is where things get even worse, because this is not the first time that a Walmart employee has called the company and its leaders out in this way…

* * *

Nine months earlier, in November 2020, Shana Blackwell (previously Ragland) quit in a very similar way after almost two years working for the multinational retailer, calling out the managers over the store tannoy for their racist, predatory and misogynistic behaviour and language towards many of her colleagues, and in particular towards black employees and young women working at the store.

You can watch her announcement here (FYI, it contains swearing in case you’re listening without headphones):

Blackwell’s video got over 24 million views and sparked a huge discussion online, with many current and former Walmart employees sharing their own experiences of working in terrible conditions.

In an interview with Lubbock news channel KLBK, Blackwell stated that “the only time society or managers ever listen to anybody is when you’re upset and you’re at your last straw, and you do something like this. So, I felt like I had to do it, not for myself but for girls, for those black associates, for everybody.”

Organisational avoidance

Photo by Hanson Lu on Unsplash

Walmart obviously had to respond to Blackwell’s action. So what did they have to say?

Well, sadly but not unpredictably, the statement issued by their spokesperson Anne Hatfield was full of evasive, empty statements that we see so many organisations spouting at times like these:

“Walmart is committed to a diverse and inclusive workplace and we take every allegation very seriously. We have spoken with the person in the video and are looking into her claims. Walmart does not tolerate any form of discrimination or harrassment in any aspect of our business.”

It would be wonderful if this were true, but clearly it’s not. Look in the comments section of YouTube and there’s one current or former Walmart employee after another echoing the very same experiences that these two women have stated so directly. Look at the fact that these two employees from different stores made similar accusations 9 months apart. And look at the evidence showing how far the lack of respect or psychological safety has spread – as McGrath pointed out, the poor treatment has spilled beyond the boundary of the organisation and seeped into the way customers treat staff, too.

Perhaps one of the saddest things about this whole situation is that it’s far from unique.

So many organisations are full of employees who feel similarly, but who, for multiple reasons, do not or cannot speak up. As Blackwell said in her interview, “the only time society or managers ever listen to anybody is when you’re upset or you’re at your last straw.”

We see this issue in a similar way to racism: most of us think that the problem is ‘over there’ somewhere, something that other people perpetuate, that it has nothing to do with us.

But as we said earlier, we are writing this today to encourage you as a leader to pay attention, reflect and learn from these mistakes.

Learning the Lessons

So where’s Walmart going on, and what do leaders in other organisations need to stop and pay attention to here?

Below are a few things to think about. This is not a comprehensive discussion, but a springboard for reflection.

1. Glassdoor is a thing these days!

Historically, the power balance in organisations was skewed heavily in favour of the employer, not the employee. This is still the case in many ways, but there are increasingly platforms like Glassdoor where employees can speak up and share their experience truthfully.

The younger generations in the workplace – millennials and Gen Z – are less and less inclined to “hide, lie and fake” their way through the day, to borrow a phrase from the excellent book, An Everyone Culture (Kegan and Lahey, 2016). If you’re mistreating your employees, we think more people are going to keep taking the risk of speaking up about it.

Platforms like Glassdoor aren’t flawless, of course; for example, if someone leaves a small organisation and posts on Glassdoor, it will be very clear who left the review. But we can expect to see more and more people speaking truth to power in the coming years.

2. Don’t wait until people are at breaking point.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it simply feels inhuman to wait until your employees are suffering so much that they feel compelled to take action in the way McGrath and Blackwell did.

Leaving people with no choice but to quit in this way is not a legacy any leader we know would feel proud of.

The critical thing to be aware of is that you don’t always know what people are experiencing. You might think you’re doing a great job, but speak to any of your people and they might have a very different story to tell.

Creating a truly psychologically safe space for people to share takes real guts. You have to be able to listen and contain your own reactions and triggers, to take others’ experiences on board without jumping to defend yourself.

It takes an emotionally and psychologically mature person to do this, and none of us get it right all the time, but there’s a distinct difference between the kind of leadership McGrath and Blackwell spoke out about and the kind of brave, humble leadership that we do see in other organisations.

3. What you don’t want to acknowledge will eventually catch up with you

We’ve found from experience that there’s at least one major elephant in the room in every team or group of people, but that if you pay attention, the elephant is right in front of you.

If your organisation does any kind of employee surveys or feedback gathering, you’ll already have a measure of the truth. We’ve found that the problem isn’t that organisations aren’t entirely unaware of how people are feeling and doing. The problem is they turn a blind eye.

We’ve worked with multiple groups who have reached a point of apathy, believing that there’s almost no point speaking up because they’ve shared it all before with little to no response.

It takes courage to open up about these with each other. It means getting uncomfortable, being vulnerable, and truly owning our stuff. If leaders aren’t cognizant of this, and if they aren’t very proactive about creating a safe space for people to share feedback, ask questions, challenge the status quo, these issues can mushroom and become deeply endemic in the culture.

If you want to learn more about this, the go-to resource we'll recommend is Dr Brené Brown's body of work. She and her team have done extensive research on the role of vulnerability in leadership and organisational cultures. Check out her work here.

Eventually, this seeps into the culture. How could it not? Engagement, performance and productivity all suffer when organisations don’t take care of their people – unless they operate in truly draconian ways, running on control, fear and shame. It might appear to work for Amazon or Walmart, but really, do you want stories like this to be your legacy?

4. Awareness, awareness, awareness

We are always banging on about self-awareness and doing your own personal development work as a leader. It is perhaps the most important things you can do to improve your leadership.

None of us is wholly ‘good’. We all have a dark side, aspects of our personality and behaviour that cast a shadow and have an impact on those around us.

We’re also group animals. We’re different in groups than we are alone or in pairs, and you need a high level of individuation (emotional and psychological maturity) to be aware of the many conscious and unconscious forces, beliefs and emotions driving us to behave in certain ways.

In groups, a lot of our baser instincts come to the fore. It takes awareness and maturity to be aware of this and to consciously choose to show up from a place of kindness, humility, trust, generosity and genuine care.

So, if the impact you’re having on others as a leader matters in any way to you, we cannot over-emphasise how important it is to work on your own psychological and emotional maturity.

There are of course leaders who are driven by other concerns, things like power-over, control or dominance. We would suggest that these leaders have a long way to go in their growth, and we’re not actually speaking to those people in this article.

The instinct to sweep the tough stuff under the carpet is something we all face, but we can make a choice to feed the proverbial ‘good wolf’ inside of us.

In conclusion

If you don’t have senior leaders who genuinely care about people, publicly calling out organisations for their bad practices seems to be one of the only ways people can have a voice.

Sadly, these employees’ experiences show that all too often in the world of work, we are driven by our lesser natures rather than our best selves. Power and authority often get abused because it feels good to the people doing the abusing (although arguably, deep down this isn’t the case), or because they are unaware of the real impact they are having.

It takes a different kind of leader to create a culture that is genuinely people-oriented. What can you do today to choose to be that kind of leader?

Now we'd love to hear from you. Leave a comment below and head over to LinkedIn to join the conversation.

(The first photo in this article is by Kane Reinholdsten via Unsplash).



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