Bagging Groceries Taught Me Everything I Needed to Know About Being an Executive Part 12
“Lack of loyalty is one of the major causes of failure in every walk of life.” Napoleon Hill
“You've got to give loyalty down, if you want loyalty up.” Donald T Regan
Lesson 12. Large organizations can be schizophrenic. What was accepted and widely practiced can suddenly become a problem. You must be loyal and protect your employees from the organization itself when necessary.
My first “real” job was at Piggly Wiggly Southern®, a grocery store chain that was primarily based in Georgia in the early 80’s. This is the twelfth in a series of posts describing the Executive Leadership lessons I learned in that first job.
I had been promoted to Perishable Goods Manager. This meant that I was responsible for all the frozen and refrigerated food in the store. Unlike my job as a member of the stock crew, this was a solitary job where I was completely on my own. The frozen food truck came in on one day and the refrigerated truck came in on another, so I would unload them and stock the shelves, then neatly store what was left either in the large walk in freezer or cooler in the back room of the store. I made my own schedule, order my own inventory and stocked using a First In, First Out method to reduce loss due to perishable products going out of date.
I loved this job! I was essentially an independent contractor! I worked when I needed to and my performance was determined through a suite of quantitative measures (profit margin, loss due to out of date inventory, inventory levels) and qualitative measures (appearance, stock level). Give me a job, hold me accountable and leave me alone. Did I mention I loved this job?
Despite my best efforts, there were times when items would age past their “sell by” date and I would have to pull them off the shelf as they could no longer be sold. They were perfectly safe to eat so I would box them up, show them to the assistant manager and take them home. If the amounts were reasonable, and I offered the opportunity to take the products home to others, this was a common practice in every store I worked in.
There was a similar process on the dry goods side of the store. Occasionally boxes would fall from the pallets and things would get dented, or a stocker would cut a little too deeply into a box and cut open the products. At the end of the stock night all the damaged goods would be assessed and put into three categories: 1) Sellable with a markdown of the price, 2) Unsellable but the store could use it (cleaning supplies), 3) Unusable and unsellable. The crew could take home anything from the third category after clearing it with the Stock Manager. As with the out of date perishable goods, this was a common practice in every store I had been in.
Around this time, there were a couple of incidents around Piggly Wiggly where employees abused their position and stole from the company. There was one well known incident where a couple of bad employees had placed boxes of expensive automotive products outside on the loading dock behind the store and then come back later to get them. That store was under surveillance by Piggly Wiggly internal security (who knew?!) because it was suffering from an inordinate level of shrinkage. Shrinkage is the retail term for loss due to employee or vendor theft. Those kids were charged with theft and fired.
Problem solved, right?
Wrong. As big companies sometimes to do, they took an isolated incident and extrapolated that into an entirely new policy. Because of a few bad actors, every employee would now be presumed to be a potential thief. The new policy was that no employee could take any damaged or out of date products home anymore. Any products that could not be sold or used in the store itself should be thrown out.
Virtually everyone thought this was a stupid policy, but headquarters (the masterminds mentioned in my last article) refused to listen. It broke my heart to throw out perfectly good food, but I wasn’t going to lose my job over some aged cheese or yogurt!
A few weeks after this policy was instituted, one of the employees went to the back of the store and pulled items out of the dumpster that the stock crew had thrown out. He got a bunch of dented canned goods and some damaged car care items and took them to his car, where our internal security team intercepted him and brought him to the manager of the store. They demanded that the manager fire him.
The manager said no. He told the security people that it was ridiculous that they wasted time staking out a trash dumpster when they should be dealing with real issues. Furthermore, digging things out the trash was not in violation of any policy and that the rule was stupid anyway. They insisted that he take disciplinary action. He told them to get out of his store and that he would deal with the issue through the headquarters office.
He became in instant hero! We all knew that he was taking a risk, but it was the ethically correct choice. Just because something is a “rule” doesn’t make it right, and it is sometimes a leader’s responsibility to protect his team from administrative craziness and from those organizations whose role it is to enforce that craziness. The difficult choice that manager made was the trigger to a backlash against this poorly thought out policy. Every manager in that district rallied behind him and HQ eventually changed the policy.
How many of you have the courage to stand up for your employees? Do you decide disciplinary action based on what is best and easiest for you, or based on what is right? I suspect all too many in leadership positions do what is easiest for them by rationalizing that it “is just business, nothing personal” and that “they have to do what they have to do”.
That is not leadership.
I spent a lot of time thinking about this particular article. Many of us work in large organizations where we are required to navigate a byzantine labyrinth of rules and regulations that no reasonable person could even explain, much less follow. I use the saying that "no one cares until someone cares, then everyone cares" to describe the reality that organizations can quickly turn on the very employees they count on to deliver value. Heaven help the poor employee that is in the wrong place at the wrong time without a strong and ethical manager to look out for them.