It’s time all stakeholders — employees, business leaders, government officials, and educators — have a serious discussion about how the nation can create better jobs for the next generation.
Wal-Mart has been getting good press recently for its decision to raise its associates’ wages to a minimum of $9 per hour. And it should. So should the unions and community groups that have been pressuring the U.S. retailer to do just that. They also deserve some of the credit for exposing Wal-Mart’s low wages, reliance of associates on food stamps and other public assistance, anti-union tactics, and bottom of the industry ratings on customer service and employee satisfaction.
It’s been a rough year for General Motors. The company has recalled more than 28 million vehicles worldwide and is liable for billions of dollars in automotive repairs and victim compensation. It suffered an 85% drop in its second-quarter earnings and faces multiple state investigations, not to mention class-action lawsuits related to safety issues. Can GM recover from this massive crisis?
It can make a comeback, but the recovery hinges on changing the organization’s culture. For years, GM focused on cost-effectiveness and the bottom line, creating what the new CEO Mary Barra calls “a pattern of incompetence and neglect.” To address the current crisis, she of course needs to fix the safety problems, but she also needs to create a new company culture. Safety must become the priority over cost savings in order to regain consumer and market trust, and GM’s focus needs to be on the customer.
So far, Barra, who inherited the crisis when she was promoted to CEO this past January, is moving in the right direction. By firing 15 employees who were involved in the lack of communication about safety issues, she sent a powerful message both within and outside of the company about the company’s changing priorities.
Huge crowds recently descended on New York City to demand action on climate change. While it was an important event, I’m not sure what the march accomplished, beyond calling more attention to this critical issue. But there is a way to harness this kind of people power in a way that can have a real impact: Organize a string of high-profile marches and other activities right in the congressional districts of politicians who continue to deny undeniable science.
True political change doesn’t necessarily happen by marching in front of world leaders and others who already largely agree with you. But there can be a real impact if some of these same marchers would be willing to demonstrate in less friendly political territory to directly take on some powerful people who stand in the way of meaningful efforts to combat climate change.
In the 1987 movie Wall Street, Gordon Gekko’s memorable pronouncement that “greed is good” epitomized the worst features of American corporations that focus only on maximizing immediate shareholder returns without regard to the impact on their employees, customers, or communities.
That corporate caricature has continued to prevail. But recently, people ranging from Harvard University Business School Professor Michael Porter to leaders of the Sloan, Ford, Aspen, Hitachi (more here) and other foundations are putting forward the case that companies can provide great returns to shareholders and great jobs for employees.
Nearly one fifth of American workers work in retail and fast food, and they have bad jobs. They earn poverty-level wages, have unpredictable schedules that make it hard to hold on to a second job, and have few opportunities for success and growth. These are not just people who are uneducated or unskilled. In 2010 more than a third of all working adults with jobs that did not pay a living wage had at least some college education or a degree.
The conventional wisdom in business is that bad jobs like this are necessary to keep prices low and profits high. If a low-cost retail chain were to pay its cashiers more, then it would either make less money or have to raise its prices. Implicit in this logic is the seemingly self-evident tradeoff between low prices and good jobs. But that is a false tradeoff. Even in highly competitive industries like low-cost retail, it is possible to pay employees decent wages and treat them well while giving customers the low prices they demand.
I studied four retail chains that manage to do this: Costco, Trader Joe’s, QuikTrip (a U.S. chain of convenience stores with gas stations), and Mercadona (Spain’s largest supermarket chain). They offer their employees much better jobs than their competitors, all the while keeping their prices low and performing well in all the ways that matter to any business. They have high productivity, great customer service, healthy growth, and excellent returns to their investors. They compete head-on with companies that spend far less on their employees, and they win.