- Wal-Mart's genius: It understands life on the cheap. It just doesn't understand women.
From the day she set foot in Wal-Mart, Kathleen Schmeida wanted to be a store manager, professing her goal to anyone who would listen.
Such ambition would seem a precious thing. If you've ever needed help at Wal-Mart, you know that finding someone with enough brain activity to qualify as a living human is an expedition in itself. So Schmeida, an assistant manager at stores in Macedonia, Streetsboro, and Stow, kept asking how she could make it to the top. Her bosses refused to say.
Rodney Bowden's advice was typical: "He told me that any additional information on training for advancing within the company was 'available on a need-to-know basis' and that I did not need to know," Schmeida says in her lawsuit.
Jody Shearer was hired at the Wooster Wal-Mart. Two guys hired after her were given more money. When she asked about the discrepancy, her manager said she was mistaken. Shearer knew the guy was lying. But she received superior evaluations, and she too had her eyes set on management. So she asked about supervisory training. "Management's not for you," she was told.
Then there's Micki Earwood, personnel chief at the Urbana store. When she noticed her boss giving men raises beyond the guidelines -- while giving women far less -- she called the district manager. Earwood had reason to be concerned. Her boss had refused to sponsor women for the management-training program and told her that applicants for certain jobs "could not have kids," she says in her lawsuit.
But the district manager worried about none of this. Instead, he accused her of recording conversations with supervisors. Earwood says it never happened. She was fired anyway.
If you buy the company line, feel free to dismiss such talk as hollow sniveling from disgruntled employees. But set aside some time, because you'll have to dismiss similar claims from more than 100 women in 30 states, a tally that mounts by the day.
In their class-action suit, they accuse Wal-Mart of systemically screwing female workers -- in wages, promotions, and all things in between. The stats back them up: Though women outnumber men four to one among hourly supervisors -- where wages are slightly above minimum wage -- they account for only 15 percent of store managers. The logical conclusion: Smiley Roll-Back is a Neanderthal punk.
Yet as with all things involving this curious company, reality is much more nuanced.
Face it: If you're a true troglodyte, you can't possibly take an Arkansas general store and build it into the world's largest retailer. You need guile, insight into the way working people live, spend, and shop. This is Wal-Mart's genius. It understands life on the cheap.
"You can shop other retailers and find many of the same items and brands," explains fan Denise McNamee, a widow who recently started her own business. "But you will almost always pay more. What's the sense in that?"
The genius extends to building its customer base. If Henry Ford pioneered the $5 day so that employees could buy the cars they made, the men at Wal-Mart are his soulmates -- in reverse. They pay their million workers so poorly -- average full-time wage: $11,700 a year -- that they can't shop anywhere else. But there's a downside to their cunning.
Begin the job description for new managers. You'll work irregular shifts and forced overtime, face long commutes as you're transferred around the city, and you must relocate at a moment's notice. Your reward: a few quarters above minimum wage.
This isn't a career opportunity. It's penance, a system seemingly designed to attract only the dumb and desperate. And as these people fill the ranks, they bring with them a dimwitted recklessness.
The company's faced innumerable civil-rights suits, for everything from firing blacks who date whites to telling female employees that "God made Adam first, so women would always be second to men."
It's been raided by the feds for employing illegals, caught making people work off the clock, and found hiding and destroying documents in dozens of lawsuits nationwide. Bloomberg Markets discovered evidence that it pays spies to search and destroy union-friendly workers. And though Wal-Mart fancies itself as America's Store, last year it imported $15 billion in goods from China.
Its reputation is so bad that two out of every three new stores face opposition to construction. Perhaps that's because a typical location costs its host community $420,750 a year in medical, housing, and free-lunch subsidies that go to impoverished workers, according to a California legislator's report.
Given this record, it's tempting to consider Wal-Mart a low-rent Mafia. Yet these guys just keep getting caught. In truth, they're idiot savants, blessed with a crisp aptitude for numbers, but little else. Think of your dumb-ass brother-in-law who tries to rob a cop bar with a plastic squirt gun. He's too stupid to hate, but you'd love to smack some sense into him.
All of which makes it hard to buy the class-action suit. To do so, you must believe that morons systematically kept women schlepping shampoo and junior-miss skirts instead of running the show. This gives them too much credit. Beside, it's just a symptom.
Wal-Mart's true illness is not understanding the correlation between wage and quality. You buy poverty-level managers, you get poverty-level thinking -- the kind that quotes Adam and Eve in job reviews and takes its gender cues from the seventh century. If left untreated, it's an affliction that eventually proves fatal.
Here's hoping Wal-Mart sees a doctor. If it died today, there'd be no one to carry the casket.