In mid-February this year, the big box retailer informed employees that effective April 26, the greeter role would be replaced by an expanded “customer host” position, requiring a greater range of job skills and physical demands like being able “to lift 25-pound (11-kilogram) packages, climb ladders and stand for long periods.”
Those who have worked in organizations for any significant time know it’s not unusual for positions to be added, deleted, and changed. What’s different about Walmart’s move is that its 1.5 million U.S. associates make it the nation’s largest private employer, and many of those who have filled the greeter role have been people with disabilities.
Given that unique employment impact, it’s understandable that many have not liked the change. Fred Wirth, whose son Joe uses a wheelchair and who worked as a Walmart greeter before losing his job, claimed the company’s plan was “just a systematic way of getting rid of all the disabled people.”
Could Wirth’s claim be true? Is the world’s largest retailer intentionally trying to displace workers with disabilities?
To answer that question, it’s helpful to understand the legal context for any such agenda. Title I of the American’s with Disabilities Act “prohibits covered employers from discriminating against people with disabilities in all employment-related activities, including hiring, pay, benefits, firing and promotions.”
Organizations aren’t expected to employ people who cannot perform the functions of a job. However, firms are required to provide “reasonable accommodation” for individuals with disabilities. For instance, a company could modify the height of a service desk in order to allow an individual in a wheelchair to more comfortably interact with customers.
To its credit, Walmart has tried to transition disabled greeters into different positions and otherwise accommodate them. It began to do so in 2015, when it started a pilot program that introduced the customer host position, who not only greets customers but also keeps the entrances safe and clean, assists with returns, and checks receipts as needed. During this program, the company claims it was able to help 80% of affected associates find new positions, many involving promotions.
Greg Foran, president and CEO of Walmart's U.S. stores, says that it’s the company’s goal to offer “appropriate accommodations that will enable these associates to continue in other roles with their store.” For instance, the company was able to offer jobs in self-checkout to three longtime greeters, all of whom have cerebral palsy.
Unfortunately, not every former greeter could be reasonably accommodated or had skills that would readily translate to other work. For these reasons, Walmart has extended the 60 day transition period in order to allow extra time for greeters with disabilities to find other jobs within the company.
Besides what seems to be a good faith effort to continue to employ individuals with disabilities, it’s worth noting that Walmart historically has been one of few employers to actively hire people with disabilities. It’s easy to criticize Walmart for its recent move away from greeters, but how many associates with disabilities do we see working in Target or most other retailers?
It’s also important to recognize retail’s great state of flux. The sector has become extremely competitive, largely due to e-commerce and online giant Amazon, which has helped precipitate store closings for some of the greatest retailers ever, e.g., Sears, Kmart, and Toys R Us.
Furthermore, when consumers do shop in-store, they are increasingly greeted by touchscreen kiosks and self-checkouts, not people. The grocery store where our family shops has a robot, rather than a person, roaming the floors to look for spills and dropped products.
Most of these technological advancements are driven by firms’ desires for greater efficiency and effectiveness. There also are times for most of us when it’s just easier to deal with a machine than a person. Nothing against bank tellers, but most people probably prefer to get cash from an ATM and to have funds deposited electronically into their accounts.
In the digital age, most people also probably don’t care about being greeted as soon as they enter a big box retailer. For some, it may even be a turn-off.
One of the greatest gifts any of us can be given is a job, but employment should be more than biding time to get a paycheck. Work should be meaningful to the person doing it, as well as to the company paying for it and to others ‘consuming’ it. The position of Walmart store greeter once served a more useful purpose, but it has outlived its useful life.
You probably wouldn’t want to sit or stand in the same place, day after day, repeating over and over, “Welcome to Walmart” to largely apathetic passersby. I wouldn’t. Most people, including individuals with disabilities, are capable of much more.
Even certain advocates for the disabled have applauded Walmart’s efforts to transition greeters to other positions. For instance, senior disability specialist at National Disability Rights Network Cheryl-Bates-Harris says, “Walmart is now opening the door to actually help individuals realize their full employment potential.”
So, it’s very unlikely that Walmart is intentionally trying to displace disabled workers. More likely, it wants to remain viable in a fiercely competitive retail arena, which will, in turn, allow it to continue to employ millions of people, including those with disabilities.
Sometimes organizations need to make tough decisions that negatively impact certain people in the short-run. However, offering meaningful work that provides valuable service to others in the long-run equals “Mindful Marketing.”