How Whole Foods Market Changed Its Company Culture

by Todd Bowser

Over the course of 10 years, I have worked for Whole Foods Market off and on in four different states, three different regions and 11 different positions. I was in culinary school when I began working there, and the experiences I have had working in restaurants mostly served to drive me back to Whole Foods’ relative stability and sanity.

I recently got married and moved across states, and when I left my former store, I took 30 days’ leave, which my accrued vacation hours just about covered. As my savings and paid time off dwindled, full-time positions at the store where I now live failed to appear. An established local coffee shop hired me to join its counter staff as it expands into a full-service kitchen and bar. I’m excited for the change, and to be in a mom-and-pop shop with a sense of community and the meticulousness that staying small allows, but I’m still scrambling to get health insurance and other basic needs.

Not too long ago, I began reading news stories about a huge wave of layoffs at Whole Foods that made me fear for my former coworkers. I can often count on the rumors surrounding the company to be exaggerated, but this particular rumor turned out to be true, as true as $5.99 for distilled water with three unwashed asparagus spears in it.

From the Whole Foods Market company news:

As part of its ongoing commitment to lower prices for its customers and invest in technology upgrades while improving its cost structure, Whole Foods Market will reduce a number of positions over the next eight weeks. The company estimates the net reduction to be approximately 1,500 jobs, which represents 1.6 percent of its workforce. It anticipates many of the reductions to be managed through natural attrition and expects a significant percentage of affected Team Members will find other jobs from the nearly 2,000 open positions across the company or via new jobs created from the more than 100 new stores in development.

Fifteen hundred people have been laid off from Whole Foods Market, while just over 1,700 job openings are currently posted. Basically, Whole Foods is getting rid of certain positions and consolidating others (the wine buyer and cheese buyer are now one person, for example) and gently pushing some of its existing staff into part-time positions.

This has occurred at an incremental pace for years, maybe before I became aware of it. When I worked at the Dedham, Massachusetts store — at the time, the flagship store of the North Atlantic region, as well as the store where the regional president lived near and shopped — the word came down that our store and others would no longer have its own accounting department, but smaller teams of certain existing staff would handle the needs of multiple stores, and there would also be a few unfortunate redundancies, which we were discouraged from talking about. I was the cheese buyer at the time, and we would have laughed at the idea of the wine buyer doing my job or me doing his. In fact, it was hilarious to watch either of us try even to handle even one of each other’s customers.

View image |

The cutbacks in essential staff keep creeping upward into more vital roles, even at a corporate level. With this latest round, the company is getting rid of many of its Payroll and Benefits Specialists. The PBS handles HR support at the store level, doing the initial hiring legwork, documentation and background checks for new hires and ensuring that everyone gets paid the right wage and gets their time off and health care. This was the person who broke it to us year after year that the price of our health benefits through United Healthcare was going up. By the time I had worked 10,000 hours for the company and my health insurance should have cost me nothing, it was the PBS’s job to brief me that it would now cost $15 a paycheck and $25 a paycheck for my wife, and that there was a nearly $3,000 deductible — which the company blamed on the Affordable Care Act. The PBS was already a position that had gone through consolidation, in which select team members were offered the opportunity to either do the job they had been doing, but in a part-time capacity, or to continue full-time and commute, in order to handle the needs of multiple stores (not that their workload magically shrank along with the hours they would paid for doing it). The shrinking of HR staff was compensated for with the implementation of Workday, a complicated and buggy application intended to make things like time off requests and benefits changes the responsibility of the employee. However, the person whose job it was to help employees when something goes wrong with Workday now had greatly reduced office hours and time to get everyone who missed the group training familiar with the software.

Part of the rationale for the random layoffs is to “invest in technology upgrades,” which has never translated into efficiencies for those using or affected by those upgrades. The Workday system is only one example. As I became a buyer, the company was preparing to roll out IRMA, its own inventory and purchasing software which, we were told over a course of a year of meetings, trainings, and instructional videos, would streamline the ordering and inventory processes to the point of near-automation. Eight years into this process, the program is said to be on its way out. I would have loved to see the ordering revert to a series of separate Excel spreadsheets in which one could reconcile one’s own purchases each period, using basic high school math skills, and be able to connect with vendors like regular human beings over the telephone.

The company wants to increase part-time positions and decrease full-time staff to reduce labor costs. They want to reduce the number of specialist positions to reduce labor costs. This savings is meant to come in two ways, not just on what an advanced Team Member makes per hour, but by the fact that the 20-hour positions have vastly reduced benefits. Not only does this undercut the heart of the company’s “Core Values” of supporting team members, but it has caused other obvious problems.

That this “reduction in positions” happens so close to the “Taregate” pricing scandal is a little bit shocking. The scandal about tare weights and “ripping people off” was really a consequence of this kind of thinking, not some corporate conspiracy like many wanted to believe. There was always potential for minor discrepancies in tare weights (the weight of the packaging — which had to be compensated for either by the person weighing out your potato salad at the deli counter, or by the person weighing your salad bar selections at the checkout stand) and in my own experience, there was always a little wiggle room, as containers change: a slighter flimsier pint container here, a different “eco” hot bar tray there. These items came from a single packaging company who often seemed, back when I ordered supplies, to be even less organized than Whole Foods Market.

So it was important to me, and to the company’s reputation, to always err on the side of the customer. Since my job was always hands-on, even as a buyer, supervisor, or associate team leader, I would relearn tare weights as they changed. The difference in the feel of a container weighing .04 pounds and one weighing .06 pounds is discernible to a person who handles hundreds of these items per day. A new part-time employee who spends half of her work week doing one job and the other half doing some other job, or worrying about how all the bills are getting paid this month, has less time to build these habits and lacks the motivation to bother.

Whole Foods Market’s statement and actions send a message that a skilled, experienced workforce is not worth paying for. Their store, regional, and corporate “global” leadership is so good that the rest of the work can simply be done by minions with no training or experience.

All of this occurs in the name of stock price — an increased return for those who do not contribute to the work.

The news of these layoffs is disheartening enough to those who follow the company, but now the biggest fans are coming in for the familiar faces and great service they came to rely on, only to watch an indifferent stranger fumble their free-range eggs. The erosion of the customer base is inevitable, especially once the incompetent lackies arrive to replace the people on whose backs the company was built. This is a company with no driver at the wheel trying to pull itself out of a toilet by putting long-term full-time committed Team Members at the head of the snake before jamming it down the drain. A company built on the quality of its people, Whole Foods thinks it can survive solely on its brand.

View image |

There is a certain schadenfreude-of-the-self that workers share in this company, watching their own/shared circumstances gradually decline, that has occupied a very sick place in my heart. I have had a community of reliable coworkers and friends who went through one discouraging setback after another without letting their growing cynicism affect their ability to astound customers with their kindness and professionalism, which is how a company keeps customers. Laying off hundreds of these people is one of too many decisions made by people who spend as little time as possible in touch with the people affected by their changes to policy, either the ground level team members or the customers with whom those teams interact.

I have seen regional leadership arrive at stores and customer service take a backseat. It is like an inspection. Word gets out that coordinators and vice presidents (whose numbers continue to grow, though that point seems lost at the discussions of ballooning overhead) are coming to the store, and a frantic round of window-dressing begins. Team leaders can be reprimanded over the shape of their departments if displays are not large enough, full enough, or thought to be in the wrong place. Someone in charge has to be present for these visits, and for the worst of department managers, it is the only time they will spend on the sales floor. Much time is spent casually walking around the store and looking at displays and nodding at one another, and because one does not rise in the company without worshiping the power structure, it all becomes a very big deal, and customers and employees often suffer when the VIPs arrive.

I made a point to respond minimally to those visits, not as a “fuck you” to upper management, but because it was my job to put customers first, and over 10 years it had actually became something that I enjoyed. I remember sitting in a training session in a store in Michigan years ago and talking about how great it was that our job is to be nice to people, and there were so many worse things one could do for a living. I would watch these very public meetings going on on the sales floor, and I would watch my customers having to walk around these chuckling groups of eight or 10 people; it was tonic to my frustration at the waste of time and resources to be able to take care of the actual people who kept us in business.

Circumstance had brought me back to the North Atlantic region where I had begun with the company. The North Atlantic was not just the most profitable region in the company, but, in my experience, the most miserable; it was an anomaly to me. The stress of people whose work demands grew and grew, outpacing their compensation, while the resources shrank visibly around them and opportunities for advancement and improvement dried up made for an unstable mix of masochists and sociopaths, but most of the people I knew hung in and did their jobs. As frustration and apathy took hold and one policy change after another made our work harder and less rewarding each year, you couldn’t get someone to take their problems out on their customers or their work. The sarcasm in back rooms would get more biting, and in my last years, I was fortunate enough to work with store management who made a point of being on our side, who proved it possible to be in on the joke and still do our jobs and maintain a healthy bottom line. I can only wonder what the fight has been like for the few people of integrity and conscience I have known to hold those positions, trying to hold on to proven, valuable people the company now wants to get rid of.

Ultimately, this is a symptom of a company that no longer understands itself. An old friend and coworker of mine once compared Whole Foods to a beautiful but insecure high school girl, constantly changing her clothes and insisting she looks fat, no matter how much her friends try to reassure her. Whole Foods Market never really adapted to being a publicly traded company. Growth For Growth’s Sake goes against every other thing the company has ever tried to be. It has embraced much of the inequitable and unsustainable status quo to which it set out to be the alternative. It has turned a blind eye to certain cut corners that were simply part of the industry it is in, while taking its own knife to certain others. Meanwhile, it creates numerous marketing initiatives in an effort to cling desperately to its creation myth.

What these 1,500 layoffs mean is that for all its posturing, Whole Foods has forgotten that its people are part of its product. Anyone can run a grocery store, but Whole Foods was selling a different kind of experience. Whole Foods has begun to skimp on the people who are supposed to take care of you and brighten your day, once again crossing its fingers behind its back that you won’t notice.

Todd Evan Bowser is a gourmand, musician, sound artist, and writer. He has recently moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Photo: Harry Lawford

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.