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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Help Shift Workers Walk an Aisle in Each Other’s Shoes

The Natural Employer

Us and them. Maybe it?s human nature for groups to form an identity in opposition to others. In sports and contests and competition between businesses, this tendency can be channeled in a positive direction. However, when it emerges within a department between those who work the early shift and the late shift, the breakdown into ?us and them? becomes destructive to morale and productivity.

Night and weekend workers are the unsung heroes of retail, the ones who really make or break customer service. Yet they are often the lowest-paid, lowest-seniority employees in a department, while the early shift is regarded as desirable, as an entitlement for people who have ?paid their dues.? Typically, department managers come in early and leave before the evening rush, citing the need to call in orders in the mornings.

The unfortunate result can be elitism on the part of day workers and a sense of victimization for night workers. The day shift grouses that the night workers leave work undone, and leaps to the conclusion that they must be goofing off because they just don?t care. The night shift feels unappreciated and unsupported when the day shift doesn?t stock up or produce enough output to last through the evening rush.

When he came to the meat and seafood department at The Wedge Community Co-op in Minneapolis, John Jaksa faced the day/night dilemma. Although he?d learned the meat-cutting trade from his family?s meat market in Cleveland, he had also spent years in nursing, where inter-shift warfare is endemic. Starting on the evening shift at The Wedge, Jaksa worked his way up to p.m. shift leader, then assistant manager and now manager of the nation?s first certified-organic meat and seafood department.

Jaksa?s first opportunity to bridge the day/night gap came in his role as assistant manager, when he started scheduling new workers to work the opposite shift for one or two weeks as part of their training. Once they walked a mile in others? shoes, day and night shift workers would comment, ?I never realized what they did.? Now, as department manager, Jaksa works varying hours covering both shifts. His assistant manager comes in early, allowing Jaksa to start in mid-morning. He also schedules himself for an 11-to-7 and a 10-to-9 shift so he can be part of the night crew.

Over time, the sheer pressure of increasing sales volume has blurred the lines between shifts. Jaksa believes cross-training and incorporating more of each shift?s tasks into the other has been key to reducing ?us and them? feelings and improving department productivity. Starting at 6 a.m., three hours before store opening, the morning shift still emphasizes production—grinding and cutting fresh meat and stocking cases—but now the night shift bags chicken parts and cuts and portions out beef bones. And every employee understands that his or her primary duty is to serve the customer.

Department meetings provide a forum for unifying the team. Jaksa says, ?At meetings my mantra is: The a.m. shift helps the p.m. shift do their job, and the p.m. shift helps the a.m. shift do their job.? Apparently the mantra is catching on because he?s heard other meat and seafood workers saying it themselves.

Here?s a checklist for department managers to reduce or even prevent conflict between shifts:

  • Schedule yourself to work both shifts, or across shifts.
  • Cross-train employees in skills needed for day and night shifts.
  • Appoint a person to be in charge on p.m. shifts if you?re not there, such as an assistant manager or shift leader.
  • Hold department meetings in afternoons so both shifts can attend.
  • Constantly uphold the priority of customer service for all employees.
  • Nip ?us against them? sentiments in the bud. Challenge those who complain about the work of other shifts to be part of the solution.
  • Don?t take sides. Show that you value production work and customer service on both shifts.

Carolee Colter is the principal of Community Consulting Group. Reach her at 206.723.4040 or

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 3/p. 76

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