Thursday, February 20, 2014

First Response To My Formal Complaint About Lack Of Employee Inclusion In WSM Decision-Making

The formal response of the WSM Human Resources Manager to my Formal Complaint that management of Weaver Street Market Co-operative are in breach of co-op policy in not including employees in decision-making gets an Olympic Bronze for my efforts so far. It’s a qualified success.

It amounts to: well, you’re sort of right; we’re never going to admit to that; but we’ll try harder in the future.

I have filed a Formal Appeal to the General Manager, not so much to have another whine, but to see about converting that technical Bronze to at least a Silver, by getting the General Manager to elaborate on what trying harder looks like. And I get the ball rolling by setting out some suggestions.

I have learned from past experience that platitudes from the WSM corporate office management team rarely amount to much unless they are pursued.

I set out later the long version of the Response and the Appeal. But upfront, let’s examine the short version of what this is all about.

First, what the heck am I doing? Leaving on one side all the philosophy about what it means to be a co-operative, we have a thing called WSM Employee Policy.

That would be the booklet sitting in your break room, the one that you push to one side when you’re having lunch and playing on your Nintendo 3ds.

Slap bang on the front inside page is a passage headed ‘Board Policy – Treatment of Staff.’ It sets out how WSM as a co-op is supposed to behave towards its workers. It is co-op policy, and has the same force as any policy that gets you written up as a WSM worker.

It states: “The General Manager may not … for paid staff, cause or allow a decision-making standard that is not transparent or does not allow for opportunity [for paid WSM employees] to participate in decisions or shape the guidelines for decisions.”

In 2007, a consultation exercise was undertaken which defined those areas where WSM management are duty bound to conduct a process that includes employees in the making of a major decision. Those areas are: Personnel Policy, Workplace Environment, Pay and Benefits, and Department Strategy/Focus. You can find the full document with the details on the site, open to all employees, when you log onto the web at work, in the Human Resources folder.

Section 5.J of the same WSM Employee Policy sets out how any employee can complain that management have made a decision without including them in the decision-making process.

I realize that, at about this point, I may have lost large numbers of my fellow workers back to their 3ds. That’s up to you. But if you are one of those who complains about the direction in which our co-op is heading, and the fact that you feel left out, then put the bloody 3ds down, and pay attention.

This is your co-op, too. There are processes that allow you to reclaim it. But anything worth fighting for takes time and effort. And this is a real fight. Not a virtual one with Mario the Xena Warrior.

So. We are permitted to complain that decisions are being made without our inclusion. And that is what I am doing at the moment.

Specifically, about the decisions to close Panzanella; set and implement these 2020 Goals we hear about from time to time; change our paychecks to direct deposit; and increase our departmental profit margins dramatically.

You can see the substance of my complaints here.

First step was for the WSM Human Resources Manager to have a shot at responding, which she did yesterday.

Bottom line: she said, meh, not so much, but we’ll do better. I have now taken it to the next level, the General Manager, to get him to flesh out what doing better will look like.

Essentially, compliance by management with the policy that requires them to include us in decision-making is an honor system. They do if they want to.

At the moment, not least because of the 2020 Goals, and the desire to build three more stores (which, by the way, management can only do if we workers agree), there are a lot of decisions being made – and we workers are being included in none of them. Which is in breach of this co-op policy.

I think it is time to have a more formal structure for including employees, and I set out some ideas in my Formal Appeal to the General Manager.

Oh, another ‘by the way.’ This isn’t all pie-in-the-sky nonsense. This is co-op policy. If management are in breach, and if they don’t mend their ways, I am entitled (you are entitled, too) to Appeal all the way to the WSM Board of Directors, and to have managers disciplined for breaching co-op policy. We are all equal in this co-op. Do not ever forget that.

So, here is the text of my Formal Appeal. I’ll keep you in touch. NOW you can go back to Mario and the Spiders from Stargate …

[Please note: the text may be a little wonky. That would be because Google does not like Microsoft, and their text algorithms are not compatible. Aren't boys silly?]

"Hey Deborah,

Thank you for your response to my Formal Complaint about lack of employee inclusion in decision-making with respect to certain decisions over the past year.

Let me deal with them by issue:

1) Panzanella - I have read Ruffin's statement. I do not disagree with it, save to say this. I understand that WSM has never before faced a situation where it has had to close a part of its business. All the more reason to be extra careful about attending to co-op policy and employee inclusion in the making of the decision.

Ruffin says that the co-op policy in question was not designed with this situation in mind. No policy is ever designed with every contingency in mind. Unless he is now saying that the policy needs to be re-designed to take account of a situation like this in the future, then, with respect, the reason offered is specious.

All of that said, the statement offered is generous. The policy covers two matters: inclusion and transparency, and does, in fact, include language to deal with situations for maximum transparency especially where inclusion is not possible. I would suggest (in a wider context, which I come to later) that, perhaps, what might now meet the rigors of transparency could be publication of this statement in an issue of the Market Messenger?

2) Paycheck - I made my complaint. You very kindly invited feedback in the following Market Messenger. You got some. You are acting on it. Complaint remedied. And thank you.

3) 2020 - I made some general points, which were not as clear as they could have been. Not least because the situation itself is fuzzy.

I could (and do) argue heartily that there has been nothing resembling proper inclusion of employees in the decisions allegedly establishing the four 2020 goals. Ruffin would claim the opposite.

There was a mish-mash of a store meeting in Southern Village in 2012. With lots of generalizations. Few facts. Generalized commentary in response - and very limited at that.

What there was, however, was a clear undertaking that there would be ongoing discussion with employees, specifically on the setting of the goals. Not merely on their implementation. I wrote to senior management at the time about this. My approach was: wait and see.

What happened is what so often happens. I waited. And I saw. Nothing. There was some limited discussion with owners. Again with the caveat that there would be more discussion. Which there has not been. What I do see is that Ruffin is now claiming that all of this 'is it-isn't' it is being classified as sufficient inclusion in decision-making, so the Goals are set.

Looking back, I can now say that the 2012 Store Meeting was confused, at best. It turns out that it represented what was the only opportunity for employees to have input on 2020.

There was no information provided beforehand to this effect. Precious little by way of facts and figures. We had a dog and pony presentation by managers on generalizations. And were then offered a limited amount of time to comment.

I made the point (as I did again in my subsequent letter) that I could not work out if the meeting represented an opportunity to discuss Goals, or their implementation. I was told the former, but then we were set targets for implementation.

The bottom line is this: we were told the Goals were not set. There would be more inclusion in the setting of the Goals. There has not been. Period. As I say in my letter, if there had been proper process, truly allowing workers the opportunity to participate in the decision before it was made, I would have suggested other Goals, and the exclusion of at least one of the ones being offered by management.

The truth is, management set the Goals before the 2012 Store Meetings, without allowing employees to participate. You then got caught out because I published the draft. You scurried around and produced the presentation, pretending that discussion on Goals was still open. When, in fact, you had moved onto implementation. That was and remains a breach of co-op policy on inclusion of employees in decision-making. You then promised us further discussion on the Goals, and none occurred. The breach continues.

The next character of 2020 is the suggestion floated in your document that somehow the setting of very generalized Goals precludes the need for any further formal inclusion of employees in decision-making down the line.

There is nothing in the co-op policy in question that suggests that simply because there has been some sort of inclusion in a decision in the past, there is no need for further inclusion in new and different decisions in the future, just because the separate decisions are somehow associated. Not the case.

Each and every major decision requires employee inclusion in the process. Either that, or propose changes to the policy.

The next point raised is that 2020 has been discussed hither and thither, and that is enough. I could argue all sorts of interesting points about whether your average employee is able to attend Board Meetings, ever reads the Annual Report, and so on. I do not have to. The co-op policy in question does not waive the need for a specific exercise to include employees in the making of a decision simply because the matter the subject of the decision was raised in a meeting or document somewhere else.

I turn to the specific statement in your document about 2020. To be honest, your general line is: well, at all times we were thinking about employees; they knew about 2020 (er, not least because I, not you, published the draft); and they had a chance to say something; so they were consulted.

Chance does not represent compliance with a co-op policy which states (including the 2007 document) that there must be clear communication a decision is going to be made, what will be the process, how employees may be involved, the involvement and then clear publication of the results of input.

On this last every specific point, there was publication of some of the comments made at the 2012 Store Meetings. I emphasize 'some.' I complained to senior management at the time that those comments omitted several of the more important comments made at the Southern Village Store Meeting. In particular, the energetic opposition to Goal 3, and the specific suggestions about holding further discussions for employees.

To the specifics:

The process to develop 2020 stretched over several years. So what? It is a process that only 'included' employees after the Goals had been set, and were then presented at the 2012 Store Meetings.

Included input from many sources. Who cares? Doesn't meet the specific co-op policy in question for a specific process to include employees.

Opinions were heard and considered. Not relevant to Employee Co-op Policy.

Each of the four goals is rooted in WSM's historic mission. Not so much new ones as implementation of old ones.Ah. Now we're getting to the meat of it. I heard this one run in a Board Meeting.

The policy is the policy. It requires inclusion of employees in the making of decisions. Nowhere in the policy does it allow for waiver of the co-op policy because of history, normality, the fact that decisions look like others, or are an extension of others.

Frankly, this is not the first time these excuses have been run as a way of circumventing compliance by management with co-op policy. I wish it would stop.

The fact is there should have been a process for fully including employees in the setting of these Goals long before they were presented. Employees were not so included. Management is in breach of co-op policy. Talk of history, tradition, normality and the like is merely distraction.

This process seems to have been successful as it produced goals with broad agreement among stakeholders. What stakeholders may or may not have agreed to has nothing to do with whether or not there should be a stand-alone process for including employees in the setting of the Goals, and whether or not there was one.

There should have been. There wasn't. The first and the last employees knew of 2020, and were allowed input, was the 2012 Store Meeting. And it is now clear, notwithstanding the assurances given, that the Goals had, in the view of management, already been set when they were presented to the 2012 Store Meeting.

Management is in breach. And it is now a tad embarrassed. And is backtracking.

Moreover, I was at the only meeting at which owners were allowed proper opportunity to offer input on Goals 2, 3 and 4.

At the Goal 3 discussion, there was nothing but overwhelming objection to the notion of new stores. So much so that Consumer-Owner Director Lisa Best remarked that she had no idea that there was any objection to new stores. Further, she was one of the Directors to suggest there needed to be further discussion before Goals were set. There has been  none.

There will continue to be opportunities for input and discussion as the organization moves forward with the specifics of achieving the 2020 Goals.

Ah. The olive branch. And a way forward. Once again, an assurance is given. This time, I will hold management to it.

You see, Ruffin, you and I could argue about whether or not there was enough or any inclusion in decision-making over the 2020 Goals. But what difference does it make?

If I really want a Goal abandoned, or changed, or a new one set, it's not like I'm incapable of jumping up and down, and getting some attention on the subject. So. What do I want?

Exactly what you offer. If you stick to it.

Namely, accept that just because Goals exist does not mean that management is not still bound by the terms of the co-op policy requiring employee inclusion in each and every decision that flows from 2020, provided that decision falls within the categories enunciated and agreed in 2007.

So. My concerns about 2020 will be met if, going forward, and in compliance with co-op policy, management includes employees in the making of decisions which address the specifics of achieving the 2020 Goals, provided those decisions fall within the categories enunciated and agreed in 2007. 

I think I require, whether as answer to this e-mail, or by way of Formal Response to Appeal, a written agreement from the General Manager to my last paragraph.

4) Margins - I thank Ruffin for the long statement setting out the desire to be efficient, and to want to keep an eye on margins. The margin in question had been raised from 22% to 30%. I'm not saying there wasn't a reason. Even a good one. I'm saying that it was a decision which affected my Workplace Environment and my Department Strategy, and as such, I should have been included in its making. I wasn't. Management is in breach of co-op policy.

It does no good to say it flows from 2020 Goals. We just dealt with that. It's a separate decision.

It's no good saying it was discussed at an Annual Meeting or in an Annual Report. Dealt with that, too.

It's no good saying it's good business. Maybe so. It still requires employee inclusion.

It's no good saying it's normal business. Ditto.

I wrote to you and specifically stated that I would not be raising this Complaint at our Department Meeting (the first in over a year). I did not feel it would be appropriate. It is, with respect, a nonsense to suggest that, simply because we quite properly discussed ways to implement a policy I say was agreed in breach of co-op policy, this somehow represents general employee acquiescence in the decision. Otherwise next time I won't be so appropriate and accommodating.

Further, general discussion in a Department Meeting, aimed at improving efficiency generally, does not preclude the need to apply co-op policy for employee inclusion when a specific decision of magnitude is made concerning efficiency.

Deborah, we're just hopping around on a hot tin roof here. A major decision was taken. To increase my margin from 22% to 30%. That is huge. It affected Department Strategy.

The Department Meeting in question was not some regularly-scheduled Meeting to discuss efficiency, which just happened, oops, to coincide with this major decision. Zack made it clear more than once that the purpose of the Meeting was to address this major decision.

Co-op policy demands that I be included in the making of that decision. I was not. Management is in breach.

There is reference in Ruffin's statement on this issue to discussion over the years, annual reports mentioning margins, the Market Messenger asking whether we like the new marketing (can't see that this is relevant).

I do not comment on these specifics because they have nothing to do with the responsibility of management to conduct a stand-alone process to allow employees to participate in a decision that has major impact on their Workplace Environment and Department Strategy. 

Further, none of Ruffin's proffered excuses are included in the co-op policy in question as being acceptable waivers to the need for the co-op policy to be applied.

On this issue, there can be no compromise. The most recent margin adjustment, which I understand has been co-op wide, and which has had the effect of making margins uniform across the co-op, must now be put on hold. A process must be established and communicated for including employees in the making of this decision to adjust margins and to make them uniform. Full reasons must be published. Full opportunity afforded to employees to offer input. And the results of that input should be published.

Otherwise, you have failed at the very first hurdle in your stated aim of offering opportunity for input and discussion on the specifics of achieving the 2020 Goals.

To summarize, treating this e-mail as my Formal Appeal to the General Manager, I would wish for his Statement on Panzanella to be published; I regard the Paycheck matter as dealt with; I will keep a watching brief on 2020, on the basis that full opportunity will be offered to employees to be included in the specifics of achieving 2020; but I require that the most recent major decision about margin adjustment be regarded as undone, and a proper process for including employees in the making of that decision in compliance with co-op policy be commenced.

Now, I have a general point to make, along with some suggestions.

The co-op policy in question was designed when we were a smaller co-op. Along with this, at the moment, we are considering all sorts of matters under the four Goals which necessarily involve a lot of decisions. I am not the only one who has noticed that there are far more Managers' Retreats than there used to be.

Before now, this policy has operated under a form of honor system. We trust management to know when to use it, and then to use it. Maybe there are so many decisions that need to be made, it is difficult to operate that honor system, er, honorably?

Maybe we need a review of the policy to incorporate structures and processes to offer a rolling system for employees to be included?

I would suggest some or all of the following:

A) All inter-unit manager meetings to be minuted and the minutes to be published on the web-site or on Storecentral. Frankly, there is nothing managers are discussing which employees should not know. This would act as a passive safeguard for employees to ensure they are being included in decision-making.

B) A policy requiring every Department to hold two Department Meetings a year. One-third of all such Meetings to be set aside to discuss Department, Store and Co-op Strategy for meeting Ends (the Mission Statement).

C) One-third of all Store Meetings to be set aside to discuss Store and Co-op Strategy for meeting Ends.

D) A full meeting of all Co-op Employees to be held at least once every two years, 50% of such a meeting to be set aside for discussing Co-op Strategy for meeting Ends.

E) Publication in the Market Messenger of the General Manager's annual report to the Board on compliance with the Board Policy on Treatment of Staff. Such publication to be for the purpose of inviting feedback from employees. Publication to include details of the Board Meeting at which the report is to be presented, and of the Board Policy on Treatment of Staff, and Section 5.J of Employee Policy, setting out the rights of employees to complain about non-compliance of management with Board and co-op policy. Publication also to include contact details for the two Worker-Owner Directors.

F) Display in each Unit of the full text of the Board Policy on Treatment of Staff and Section 5.J of Employee Policy, setting out the rights of employees to complain about non-compliance of management with Board and co-op policy. Display also of contact details for the two Worker-Owner Directors.

G) With regards to 2020, consideration of my proposals at the Goal 2 owner's discussion. Namely the establishment of a Board Committee of Owners, with the remit to monitor 2020, ensure compliance with the Goals, and with co-op policy in their implementation. I wrote to the Board at the time with some further proposals about overcoming objections to Goal 3. They form no part of this Complaint Process, but they might serve to alleviate concerns nevertheless.

None of the above would preclude the existing terms of co-op policy on employee inclusion in decision-making and transparency of decisions. But they might make compliance by management easier.

At this point, I offer two options for taking this specific Complaint further. I have already set out in summary what I believe should be addressed by Formal Appeal to Ruffin.

As a less formal alternative, I would suggest this. Ruffin and I could meet to discuss this e-mail. Consideration could be given to the proposals for establishing a more formal structure for employee inclusion in decision-making going forward. Plus, some sort of statement could be forthcoming consequent upon this Complaint. There is no need for the statement to mention this Complaint. And it could look something like this:

  • A two-page statement delivered to all employees about decision-making in the co-op.
  • An introduction reminding employees of the co-op policy including employees in decision-making and requiring transparency.
  • A general statement about the difficulties now experienced with the co-op becoming bigger, but the desire to meet new contingencies.
  • The statement about Panzanella, citing the need for transparency about the way the decision was made.
  • Reference to 2020. Reminding employees of the Goals. And making the statement that was enunciated above, namely that employees will be invited to participate in the specifics of implementing those Goals.
  • A statement that management are considering adjustments to gross margins. Setting out the reasons (along the lines in your response). Mentioning that some adjustments have been posted as a trial. And inviting feedback.
  • A statement raising the possibility of a more formal structure and process for employee inclusion in decision-making, and inviting suggestions and comments. Perhaps raising some of the ideas above.
  • Ending with details of the two Worker-Owner Directors, for employees to be able to contact to discuss any matter further.
This might be a bit much for one statement. It might be better spread out over an immediate statement and subsequent Market Messengers.

Dependent on a positive response from you and/or Ruffin to this suggested collective alternative, I might then be prepared to waive any further Formal Appeal to Ruffin and/or to the Board of these specific Complaints.

Once more, thank you for taking the time to put so much effort into the response to my Formal Complaint.

All the best,

[As is now required by another section of WSM Employee Policy, I make the point that these are my views alone, not those of WSM. Not yet. I also make the point that I am publishing this e-mail because I believe in total transparency. There is nothing here which the community which owns and supports our co-op should not know. The Human Resources Manager's response to my Formal Complaint was delivered to me in hard copy. I presume so that I could not publish it electronically ... ]