Sunday, April 6, 2008

What We Can Learn From Wal*Mart

Don't you just hate it when the "right thing to do" isn't necessarily the right thing to do? I especially hate it when there are so many facets to a tragic issue that when you take the time to disassemble the problem, the people who seem to be *most* in the right may actually be, after all, the Big Bad Meanie. Generally speaking, I'm thinking about life. Specifically speaking, I'm thinking about Wal*Mart and the tragic Shanks.

In case you were in Panama City on Spring Break this past week, I'll summarize for you: Debbie Shank, an employee of Wal*Mart, was in a catastrophic car wreck a few years ago leaving her permanently brain-damaged. Wal*Mart's health plan covered the initial round of medical care and her husband sued the trucking company that was party to the accident and won. After the lawyers took their share, the Shenks were left with, about $400,000. Here's the problem, the Wal*Mart health care contract that Debbie signed, when she was hale, hearty and hopeful, stipulates that the health care plan is reimbursed their funds with any money that is recovered from a legal settlement. So Wal*Mart, playing the role of Big Bad Meanie, sued the Shanks for their money and it went all the way to the Supreme Court, with Wal*Mart prevailing.

Well, they didn't actually prevail because the court of public opinion turned on Wal*Mart big-time. The Shanks' story has all the elements in it that would make Oliver Stone himself write a big, fat option check to the Shanks for the thrill and privilege of telling their story on the silver screen. The system working against the little guy. The divorce forced upon the Shanks so Debbie can qualify for public assistance. Her husband's two jobs just to make ends meet. And then the real gut-puncher, the death of their son in Iraq. To make matters worse, Debbie's short-term memory is kaput, so every time she hears that her son was killed it's as if she hears it for the first time. How do I know this? CNN filmed the moment when their other son tells her. (A nasty bit of cinema-verite if you ask me; the way I figure it is that they should just stop telling her. Especially while the cameras are rolling.)

Public opinion weighed in and after going through all that trouble -- and dragging the Shanks through all that heart-ache, Wal*Mart backed down and said they could keep the money. Okay fine. I'm sure that Wal*Mart spent massive amounts of cash in legal fees (even if they could get their lawyers at low low prices) and public relations expenses (ditto with the prices). The Shanks were dragged through the heart-ache mud. The only people who come out winning here are lawyers, who, I'm sure, earned every single penny.

Another loser here, it should be remembered, is Wal*Mart's health plan. Now it's liable to another appeal from an equally tragic, needy family for whom poverty is just one car wreck away.

So over this weekend I started wondering if there couldn't be a better way. And I think I've found one that would work at least in some cases: Tap into the individual's need to make a difference.

Let me back up just a little bit: I'm working with a client right now who wants to know what makes its culture so special and why do people love working there. This is a high customer-service client, so it's imperative that the passion volume is turned up to high almost all the time. So what keeps everyone so passionate about their jobs and the organization itself? Their answer is the same: "I can make a difference here."

Then the stories begin to unfold: One employee's wife was dying of cancer right after giving birth to their third son. Naturally the employee had to spend the entire time at home -- a precious year that he will never get back. But the problem was that the company's disability policy at the time only covered the employees themselves, not their family members. So what did the employees do? They all gave their paid time off to the guy so he would still be paid but stay at home with his beloveds.

This culture of making a difference happens in small ways, like coworkers showing up to help someone move over the weekend -- unrequested, unannounced, they're there. The HR manager took it upon herself to help an employee make all the funeral arrangement for his dad because he was too much at a loss as to where to even begin. And then she showed up at the funeral herself. When Katrina blew a lot of people out of their homes, these employees volunteered their time and smarts to build a state-of-the-art shelter from an abandoned Montgomery Ward building, throwing in all their off-duty hours and energy to relieve the suffering of others. While I wasn't there, I don't believe there was any talk of, "gee, would this set a precedent?" I think it conversation was mainly around, "What can I do now?"

So let's go back to our friends at Wal*Mart. It employs 1.3 million people in the United States, all of whom are very busy individuals, with their own families and, perhaps, stretch bank accounts. And Wal*Mart has a very active charitable giving program, as demonstrated on their website, giving much more money to many more causes that are much more distant than the wrenching suffering of one family on the brink of catastrophe. The Clinton Global Initiative University is richer by $500,000. But its health care plan is now poorer by $200,000 give take. And that happy face is wearing a bit of a black eye. That's a fact.

But wouldn't it have been so much better if the Wal*Mart culture as a whole prompted its 1.3 million people (or at least the ones who want to) to pull a couple of bucks out of their wallets to donate to the Shanks relief fund? Not everyone can spare a dollar or two when budgeting their lives on a salesclerk's salary, granted. But surely, a culture of voluntary giving, especially to one of their own, would certainly have raised far more than $200,000. Depending on how they structured the voluntary giving effort, the Shanks could either have kept the $200,000 without the heartache and sleepless nights. Or maybe they could actually have received as much as $3 million from their Wal*Mart family members.

I don't know this for a fact but I would be very surprised if Wal*Mart doesn't invite its employees to donate to such community groups as United Way. No complaints about United Way, but a bloodless pledge on a sheet of paper to an organization that has no immediate relationship to each individual doesn't really help with that powerful, rewarding feeling of making a difference.

But donating money, even if it's a dollar, or loose change in the bottom of our purse, could have made a huge difference. To the Shanks. To Wal*Mart. But mainly to the people who work for Wal*Mart who are looking for a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a sense of the *power* to really make a difference to someone close to them.

It's about the culture of giving, of voluntary effort, of family, of belonging. Companies are really keen these days on corporate social responsibility. But charity really does begin at home. And from an employer's point of view, that could conceivably be the most powerful stay factor you could ever dream of.

And get this: It's free!

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