Quitting the "faux Wal-Mart"

Leela Yellesetty looks at the furor caused by a letter from a disgruntled ex-employee of Whole Foods--and why that experience is shared by millions of young workers.

A Whole Foods store in SeattleA Whole Foods store in Seattle

A FEW weeks ago, a disgruntled Toronto Whole Foods employee did what most working stiffs can only fantasize about: not only did he quit, but he sent an epic, scathing resignation letter to the company's entire Midwestern division. When the letter was posted by Gawker.com, it quickly became an Internet sensation.

Blasting Whole Foods as a "faux hippy Wal-Mart," the employee exposed the hypocrisy behind the chain's stated values--such as "caring about our communities and our environment" while failing to recycle and producing tremendous amounts of waste, or claiming to be "supporting team member happiness and excellence" while denying employees cost of living raises and decent health care.

He goes on to single out several managers for personal attacks. Without knowing the people involved, many of these come off as petty, but others capture some of the daily indignities employees are forced to tolerate in order to keep their job. For instance, he says to one manager:

You have no idea how insulting and aggravating it is to be around someone who is so condescending to all the women you work with. Stop calling them "mamma," don't refer to them as "beautiful"...for Christ's sake, just keep all pet names off the table. You are NOT complimenting women, you are being open about not knowing their names, and lazy enough to not read a name tag.

The letter-writer has since come in for his fair share of abuse. When Gawker asked those who have worked at Whole Foods to submit their responses, one letter asserted that "the kid comes from a ridiculous amount of money. He was lazy, rude and confrontational. He's throwing a hissy fit, plain and simple."

Whether or not the letter-writer was justified in his accusations, it is true that very few workers are in a position to publicly denounce their employer, even after they leave, for fear it will affect their future job prospects. Yet the overwhelming number of anonymous responses received from Whole Foods employees suggested they would join him if they could. They can be read in full here and here.

"Personally, I don't think that resignation letter was nearly harsh enough," said one respondent, going on to detail incidents of managers forcing employees to work off the clock, denying bathroom breaks and commanding them to smile at customers or risk being fired.

Here's just a sampling of some of the other comments:

-- "Whole Foods is where 'the clopen' was introduced into my vocabulary: There until 11 p.m. one night, in at 6 a.m. the next. Very healthy!"

-- "As to the wastefulness of Whole Foods...[n]ot only did we throw the food out, but it was thrown into a trash compactor so as to eliminate any possibility of salvaging the food."

-- "Despite the fact I had never called in sick or been late, they were firing me for the nebulous infraction of 'lacking a sense of urgency.' My job? Scooping egg salad into containers and putting price stickers on the bottom."

-- "The [human resources] lady has the audacity to tell me that I should have given myself enough time from leaving my place to be hit by a car and deal with the whatever happened afterwards to get to work. I look around at the other two people in the room as they nod their heads in agreement."

-- "They fire 'trouble-makers.' They figure out some way to. Can we get them on points? Sick calls? Watch them, and make sure you e-mail us in detail. I know all of this because I am a supervisor and have been asked to do this on more than one occasion."

-- "[The health care plan is] not anything more than a catastrophe plan. It's good if the employee suffered a brain trauma, but not much else."

-- "We had a suicide this year. He jumped in the river. He worked overnights. Please don't use my name. I could lose my job."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

IT'S NOT just Whole Foods employees who are unhappy. According to a recent study of employee exit interviews, more than three-quarters of those leaving their job wouldn't recommend their employer to others, up from 42 percent in 2008.

Managing director of the Corporate Executive Board Brian Kropp suggests this may have to do with employers taking advantage a captive workforce during the economic downturn. "Companies were blunt and rough-and-tumble with their workforce. They created a sense that 'the company doesn't care about me,'" he told the Wall Street Journal.

Since the vast majority of American workers lack union representation and justifiably fear losing their jobs if they speak out, the anonymity of an exit survey or a web forum are often the only spaces for workers to air their grievances.

When the Working America website invited workers to enter their stories into the "My Bad Boss" contest, they got over 700 cringe-worthy responses. A growing multitude of message boards, from WorkRant.com to WalMartSucks.org, provide a lifetime worth of venting from disgruntled employees.

An article in the Canadian National Post suggests that this may just be a generational problem: "Experts wouldn't be surprised if this is only the beginning: The Internet offers an easily grasped platform for a new generation of 20-something workers who've grown up social-media mad, consumer crazy and idealistic about their careers, they say."

One such "expert", Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before, suggests that the problem with our generation is that our "standards are going to be so high that no job could ever meet them."

From corporate America's standpoint, I suppose this is the problem with our generation. Our standards are just too high. Shackled under mountains of student debt, stuck in dead-end jobs we can't afford to quit, and we have the gall to want to be treated with some basic human decency!

There may be some truth in Twenge's observation that our baby-boomer parents raised us to believe that "everyone's opinion is valid," only to find that at the place we spend the vast majority of our working lives, it doesn't matter at all.

As my manager glumly noted while handing down the latest corporate directive, which seemingly had no logical purpose except to make our lives just a little more miserable, "Unfortunately, the workplace is not a democracy."

Now there's an idea. For every brave soul like the Whole Foods letter writer or last summer's Steven Slater--the Jet Blue flight attendant who quit by jumping out a plane's emergency chute--there are millions more who cheer them on, while silently collecting their own grievances like so much tinder.

As individuals, speaking out can come at a high cost. But collectively, maybe our generation can and should entitle ourselves to a little workplace democracy?