Walmart is making a big change that is not sitting well with many.
This week, the company announced that it is fundamentally changing the job of a Walmart Greeter, the individual who stands at the main entrance, dressed in a very distinctive vest, with a primary responsibility of providing a welcoming disposition as customers enter and leave.
The position, which was originally initiated by Sam Walton in 1980, has become a signature aspect of the Walmart brand. Moreover, it was a position that allowed Walmart to hire individuals who could not ordinarily perform the duties associated with Walmart Associates, namely retirees and individuals with disabilities.
According to the company, the "Greeter" position is transitioning to a "Customer Host," complete with a new job description and more demanding job functions, such as lifting up to 25 pounds and standing for long periods of time. Because of this change, many of the elderly and disabled employees who filled the greeter position are finding themselves forced to resign.
This announcement is not being met with warm reviews, and according to NPR, there have been several complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and lawsuits by greeters with disabilities who been displaced because of this job change.
Whether you think this decision by Walmart is good, bad or otherwise, one thing is clear -- there are some valuable lessons other entrepreneurs can learn from the move.
Lesson #1: Leverage Your Social Impact
While the Walmart Greeter program started out as a way to create an emotional bond between the stores and the community, it evolved over time into a social welfare strategy. Providing opportunities to individuals with disabilities to pursue work and contribute to the community is profoundly wonderful -- but it is clearly an objective that does not regard return on investment.
The company did a great job of integrating the position into the fabric of the brand, but they did a poor job of emphasizing the impact they were having among disabled workers. Personally, I admire Walmart who for over three decades has kept this position available for these workers in light of recessions and a radically changing business landscape.
In fact, I believe we should be celebrating that this opportunity even existed rather than denouncing that it has come to an end. That is not the way it is shaking out, which is the fault of Walmart.
Am I disappointed the greeter program ended? Of course, as it will negatively affect hundreds, if not thousands of individuals who will find it difficult to obtain new employment. I am also grateful, however, that many of these individuals had that opportunity at all.
Can Walmart afford to keep these employees? Seemingly so, but I do not have the luxury of sitting in the management meetings and being privy to the discussions revolving around how Amazon is eating Walmart's lunch online and impeding on its retail business. Walmart is trying to compete, and when it comes to allocating resources, removing greeters seems like an effective choice.
Lesson #2: You Can Not Take Back What You Have Given Away
This issue has provided another example of how businesses can get burned by executing on a well-meaning strategy, only to have it backfire in the end.
Much like pricing your product too low or giving away too much at the launch, when you set an expectation in the mind of consumers, it is incredibly difficult to alter or change that impression. It is simple psychology -- we do not like having things taken away from us, regardless of how we happen to come to possess them.
Walmart's Greeter program was a great program that provided amazing opportunities, but it was much more a benevolent than a business undertaking, and like any that was once ours, taking it back is not going to be easy.
Lesson #3: Transparency, Transparency, Transparency
While I may laud Walmart for even having a greeter program, I do believe they made a critical mistake in the way they executed this transition.
From news reports and interviews, it is apparent that this change was not adequately communicated to greeters and other employees, nor to the public. Instead of being transparent, planning and staying ahead of the transition, and taking responsibility through press releases and a social campaign, management decided to quietly change the requirements for the position, hence eliminating many who filled the position by creating a working environment in which they would be unable to work.
In terms immortalized in the movie Office Space, Walmart simply tried to "fix the glitch."
Unfortunately, this is a cowardly way to eliminate this (or any) position, and it should have been blatantly obvious to management that this strategy could never fly under the radar.
The decision by Walmart to essentially eliminate its greeter position is not one that is sitting well with the general public, and for very good reasons. The program, however, had a profoundly positive impact on thousands of people over its decades of service. Unfortunately, Walmart has largely failed to adequately communicate the reasons for the change and take a transparent and responsible approach to it, essentially destroying decades of equity the program had created. Luckily for the rest of us, we get to watch from afar and learn from all of this.
What do you think? How else could Walmart have avoided the negative attention this decision has caused? Please share your thoughts with me on Twitter.