Natural Foods Merchandiser

Go beyond the family model—treat employees as adults

The Natural Employer

"We're like a family." Usually when people describe their workplace that way they mean it in a positive sense. But when managers are the parents and employees are the children, business can suffer.

In the business environment, we see this parent/child relationship play out in many ways. Employees feel a sense of entitlement to be "taken care of." Managers make choices for employees without seeking their input. Employees are kept in the dark about store finances. Managers don't hold their people accountable for performance.

Maybe we should look beyond the family model to a different paradigm—the adult-to-adult relationship between employer and employee. Successful leaders say such a relationship starts with recruitment and involves education, communication and accountability for choices.

'Let's hire grown-ups'
That's what Katy Lesser, owner of Healthy Living Natural Foods Market in South Burlington, Vt., tells her department managers. After 20 years in business, she has 90 employees in her "maxed-out" 8,000-square-foot store and is poised to move into 30,000 square feet.

For Lesser, being a grown-up has nothing to do with chronological age. It's about emotional intelligence. She's studied the work of Daniel Goleman, who coined the term and wrote several books on the subject. She also participates in the local chapter of Vistage, an international CEO group chaired by an expert on EI. "My managers and I all speak that language now," Lesser explains. She even recently overhauled her help-wanted ads, application form and interview questions to gauge the emotional intelligence of job seekers.

"In interviews I look for people who have a sense of self and are willing to put themselves out there honestly, who ask questions and seem curious and willing to learn." As an example, Lesser cites the interview with her future café manager. "She asked for what she wanted. She didn't beat around the bush, but she was willing to compromise. She has pride in herself, but she's not arrogant."

Debra Stark has owned and operated Debra's Natural Gourmet in Concord, Mass., since 1989. When she needs to fill one of her 28 staff positions, Stark looks for people who come across as responsible and trustworthy. "It took me awhile to figure out what kind of person I wanted working in the store," she says. "Now I look for people who are active in politics and want to take care of themselves, who want to keep learning." Instead of a conventional application form, Stark asks applicants to write a couple of paragraphs on how they define themselves, why they'd like to work in the store and what strengths they could bring.

In Duluth, Minn., Sharon Murphy, general manager of the 115-employee Whole Foods Co-op (no relation to Austin, Texas-based supernatural chain Whole Foods Market), says: "We try to make our expectations clear at the interview stage. We explain what makes a co-op different from a traditional business, but it is a business."

Beyond dependency
All three retailers emphasize the importance of staff education and development opportunities in cultivating an adult relationship between employer and employee.

Whole Foods Co-op requires employees to go through a series of classes on paid time in their first six months, covering the history of cooperatives, core values and mission, products of each department, food safety, store safety and customer service. "I believe in what we're doing," Murphy says. "We're offering people something they can take out of here. We're saying, 'Education is a gift—take it when you can get it.'"

At Debra's Natural Gourmet, on-site manufacturer training and public seminars with outside speakers are open to all staff, on paid time. Also, staff members have the opportunity to be speakers in areas where they have achieved some measure of expertise.

Stark explains: "I treat every employee as an expert in a subject. For example, if a customer has a question about Lyme disease, I'll bring her to Mary [in HABA] and say, 'I don't know, but Mary is the expert on that.' " Whenever you can, she advises, delegate. "It shows you believe people are adults."

As for Lesser, she wants her staff at Healthy Living "to fly, to learn and go on to greater things. You have to take time to teach people the power and beauty of working as a team. That's the most grown-up thing you can do—get along with others. Then they are free to go. Mature people know when it's time for them to move on."

Employees as business partner
s Treating your employees as adults involves transparency about finances, with shared risks and rewards. Hanover Consumer Co-op in New Hampshire, with 350 employees working in two full-line grocery stores, an automotive center, a convenience store and a commissary kitchen, is in the beginning stages of installing open-book management.

First, co-op managers studied Jack Stack's The Great Game of Business (Currency, 1994) and sent representatives to Zingerman's Training, a program run by the well-known gourmet foods store in Ann Arbor, Mich. Department managers learned to read basic profit-and-loss statements and balance sheets, and to calculate labor costs. Now small groups called "huddles" meet weekly within departments, analyzing operations and tracking financial performance.

According to Loretta Land, human resources director at Hanover, "This should allow managers to involve employees in decisions about how to achieve financial goals. Our hope is that employees will see the impacts of their own behavior on the department and then come up with ideas for, say, promoting local produce, reducing shrink or reducing absenteeism. The more employees understand the business, the more they will be involved."

Debra's Natural Gourmet also practices open-book management and shares profits with staff. "Last summer our expenses were higher than they should have been," says Stark, "so no profits were dispensed. Everyone knows if we don't pull together, we don't have profits. We're all in this together."

Stark acknowledges that the process of involving employees in the business, "making everyone feel part of the team with an equal voice," takes time. She puts out a staff memo with every paycheck, a task that takes her a good two hours each pay period, but she considers the time well spent.

Choices and consequences
In a family, parents decide what's best for their children. In a business where employees are viewed as adults, they have the freedom to make choices for themselves while understanding the consequences.

At Whole Foods Co-op, new hires are expected to proactively schedule their training sessions. The co-op offers the same cycle of classes every month, but with rotating times to make classes accessible to staff with varied schedules. When co-op management encounters resistance from employees citing family, school or other job obligations, "we remind them what we said in the interview," Murphy says. A pay increase rides on conclusion of the training. On the other hand, failure to complete training within six months puts an employee on "at risk" status for corrective action.

In addition, Murphy says, the co-op "has an employee code of conduct that stresses respect for co-workers, for policies and for the policy-change process as keys to a healthy workplace." The code was developed by a group of representatives from each department, discussed at an all-staff meeting and then signed by every employee. Job candidates receive the code at the interview. When hired, they sign individual copies of the code to go in their personnel files.

Managers who treat their employees like adults care about them as people but accept that they can't take care of them. "As women business owners, we tend to be nurturing," Lesser says. "In the beginning I played that role. There were people who worked with me a long time because I was a caretaker. Now my door is always open, but I don't solicit people to tell me their problems. I realize I can't fix anybody's life but my own."

For Stark, the payoff of an adult relationship with her staff is her contribution to society. "We're teaching people to take responsibility for themselves and act like adults. They go out from our little store into the world and make the world a better place."

Carolee Colter is principal of Community Consulting Group in Seattle.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 10/p. 70-71

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