In retail, it’s made abundantly clear that the employee is never right…

7 minute read

August 16, 2016, 8:12 PM

The recent discussion in this space about bad employee behavior made me think of a few incidents that occurred during my time at Walmart back in 2004 that defied logic. These were incidents where I got pulled into the back office and chewed out for something that I had no control over due to policies and procedures in place at the time. One of these even was handled as a “coaching”, short for “Coaching for Improvement”, which is Walmart’s term for its disciplinary process. If you ask me, it’s pretty messed up to discipline someone over something that they have no control over. It’s where you realize that as an employee, you are never right, even when you follow protocol to the letter, and you are also responsible for your managers’ mistakes.

The first incident occurred in the summer of 2004. I got into work, and my boss, the assistant manager over the front end, pulled me aside to speak with me as soon as I clocked in. His first words were, “This is your verbal warning,” i.e. this was a coaching. Lovely. I was then told that they had caught me on camera at the service desk accepting a stolen item for a return. They explained what happened, i.e. that a person had taken a vacuum cleaner off of the shelf, walked it over to the service desk, presented a receipt, and got a their money back for it from me.

While at first glance it might seem like an open-and-shut case, and therefore grounds to discipline me for accepting a stolen item for a return, if you look more deeply into it, that argument starts to fall apart. My job at the service desk was to accept and process returns. In my store, a mid-2000s Supercenter, the service desk was in the middle of the front end, in a space that I referred to as a cave, since it was a windowless room that was only open to the rest of the store on one side.

Here’s an example of what a Walmart service desk from this period looked like:

Service desk at a Walmart Supercenter in Roanoke, Virginia, photographed mid-2004

Basically, you can’t see anything from there except for a narrow swath of space directly in front of you, and you also can’t see any of the entrances.

In addition, since the guy had a valid receipt, I wasn’t allowed to refuse the return. So my hands were tied – I had no choice but to process it. And so I got disciplined for doing my job according to established procedure.

When I asked the key question, i.e. how was I supposed to know, with the resources available to me, as well as the rules and procedures in place, that an item was stolen, my boss responded that I’m just supposed to know. Okay, then. With no access to the security camera system and no way to visually monitor any of the entrances due to my physical location in the store, I’m just supposed to innately know when an item is stolen. Make note that being a Walmart service desk employee requires being clairvoyant.

The phrase “what a weasel” came to mind. Because to answer the question that I asked truthfully, he would have had to admit that he was disciplining me for something that I had no control over, and that the failure in this process came from either the loss prevention guys or management, because they watched it happen, and failed to stop it. They could have done that by notifying the service desk about someone headed that way, and to call management over so that they could take care of it, as we were not allowed to accuse someone of stealing. Only loss prevention or management could apprehend a thief.

In other words, to save his own behind, since the loss was ultimately his own failure, I was designated to take the fall so that he could demonstrate that he took care of the alleged problem. I have a feeling that, if Walmart was a union environment, the grievance to get that writeup removed from my record would have been a very straightforward process, and I would have definitely prevailed.

The second event happened a few months later. A customer came up to the service desk, wanting to cash out a gift card. The register didn’t give mere mortals like me the authority to complete that sort of transaction, which I knew going into this. Okay, then – I needed a supervisor to approve such a request. So I called one. One of the customer service managers (i.e. someone in a red vest) came up, and I explained the request which I received.

So the matter was now out of my hands. I had properly escalated it to the next step in the chain of command, and was now just watching while the supervisor did their thing.

The supervisor immediately said that they could do it, put her key in the register, and went to approve it. Also realize that this was right around the time that Walmart stopped allowing gift cards to be redeemed for cash unless state or local law required them to do so. Normally, it would let them authenticate and approve the transaction. Not anymore. Now it said, “MANAGER APPROVAL REQUIRED” and asked for management credentials. So she got herself stuck, and in over her head, since she didn’t have that level of authority. Ooooooooooops.

So when one of the assistant managers showed up, they realized that the register was stuck waiting for the authentication to approve the transaction. Recognize that as the register was configured at that time, once the key is turned, the register wouldn’t let you continue until it got the expected authentication. The only way to back out was to cut the power to the register. However, many people either didn’t know that powering the register down was possible, or didn’t think that it was an option. So as far as the manager was concerned, she believed that her hands were tied. So she approved it. The customer got their money, and that was that.

The next day, I got pulled into the management office and chewed out for what happened the day before by the manager involved, as well as the store manager. They basically told me what a bad person I was for my alleged mishandling of the gift card return from the day before, conveniently forgetting that I had little to do with the transaction, and that it was a supervisor who mishandled the transaction. When I questioned why I was being reprimanded for this situation, since I had immediately escalated the matter, I was told that I should have known better. Sure – I’ll start giving orders to a person who is in a higher position in the company than I am and who has more authority than I do because I should know better. It wasn’t my fault that the supervisor who responded was a moron. Bottom line here, of course, was that I was being reprimanded for something that a superior did entirely on their own.

And by the way, for those wondering, yes, the employees know which managers are good, and which ones aren’t, and so when a bad one comes responding to our call, we know that you’re not going to get the proper quality of service that we want you to get, but are helpless to prevent it or even warn you. I remember one instance where a customer service manager made a fool of themselves in front of a customer, and was completely oblivious to how stupid they sounded. I was at the service desk, and was asked by a customer what the letters along the right side of the receipt meant.

Here’s an example, showing the letters in question:

Walmart receipt from Virginia Beach, August 2005

See the various instances of “R”, “Y”, and “T” along the right side? Those were the letters. I had noticed those letters some time before, but never knew what they meant. I was sure that they meant something to someone, but I didn’t know what they meant. I was actually kind of excited to get that question, because it meant that I might finally find out myself. I told the customer, “I don’t know what they mean, but let me see if I can find out for you.” So I put in a request to get someone over to find out, and we ended up getting someone who had less time in the company than I did (though not by a whole lot). I was hoping for one of the more experienced managers, but I didn’t get to choose these things.

Once they arrived, it was soon painfully obvious that she had no clue what she was looking at, but was determined to “help” the customer nonetheless. She stood there, looked at the receipt, and tried to figure it out on the fly. Regarding the R, she said, “R, that must stand for… regular grocery!” And she continued to fudge answers for all of the other letters, while the customer and I were both looking at her in disbelief.

I knew that she was BSing the whole thing, and the customer did, too. However, her intentions were good, as she was genuinely trying to help, though she was in over her head and didn’t realize it, or was simply afraid to say “I don’t know” to someone. I threw her a bone, by saying, “Are you sure, Donna?” The idea was to give her an out, i.e. to provide an opportunity to extract the foot from her mouth. But she didn’t take the out, stating that yes, she was quite sure, and then, feeling that the request had been resolved successfully, left the service desk.

That was the first and only time that I felt that I needed to apologize to a customer for a manager’s conduct while I worked at Walmart, and the customer understood the uncomfortable situation that I had been put in. After all, I couldn’t escalate it a second time, because the odds were quite good that the same person would respond again, and there would be no way to gracefully get past that. I ended up apologizing for the manager’s behavior, and we never did find out what those letters meant. I still have no idea to this day what they mean, and I would still love to find out.

All in all, I’m glad that I don’t work at Walmart anymore…

Categories: Walmart, Work