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As the mother of two teenagers and someone with a food industry career, I have often found myself relying on advice received from my late father, the supermarket entrepreneur John Olszeski: "When in doubt, always do what's right."
Looking back, I realize that doing "what's right" was our unwritten code of conduct at Hartville Foods, Inc. It helped top management to stay focused during many times of confusion or conflict. I also realize that this message resonates as strongly today as ever.
Peruse today's newspaper or tune in to any news program, and you'll no doubt catch many headlines to stories that are causing both consumers and workers to mistrust corporate America. The Enron trial and WorldCom's deceit are just the latest examples. Don't forget our own industry's dilemmas in recent years, such as Fleming's bankruptcy and charges filed against Ahold executives. Doubtless like you, I find myself questioning whether anything positive can possibly come from such exposure of corporate misbehavior.
The answer is yes.
During these turbulent times, businesses both public and private are being forced to take a closer look at ethics, according to business consultant and author Vince Crew, founder of Naples, Fla.-based Reach Development Services. As a result many are creating in-house programs to strengthen relationships among stakeholders.
"Enron was the wake-up call," says Crew. "People in all professions continue to evaluate the day-to-day conduct that takes place in their organizations, and most are asking themselves, 'Are my people at every level touching customers, co-workers, and members of this community in the manner in which I want them to?'"
As Crew sees it, retailers should be asking such questions, as the answers could affect business materially.
"We're in a time now where practically everything is a commodity, where this store is no different from that store, and milk is milk and meat is meat," he says. "So who cares where I shop?" Caring about where to shop is certainly affected by factors such as convenience and location, but even more influential is the actual shopping experience.
"Respect, courtesy, service, honesty -- all reflect the values of ownership and management, and can separate the independent, community-based supermarket in a good way -- or, in some cases, in a bad way -- from the corporate giants," notes Crew. "It all goes back to your people making the difference in how your company is viewed and what endears the customer to be loyal."
Crew knows that performance pressures to meet budgeted gross profits, supply costs, productivity goals, etc. put corporate ethics to the test. "Quotas must be met, there's new competition, price cuts are announced down the street, and suddenly we find that our numbers aren't looking too good. This can cause us to cut corners, and in doing so almost ignore the means by which we can attain our goals. People can make bad decisions for all kinds of reasons, but most of the time it's because of pressure. Combine the pressure with a sense of anonymity that's been created by millions of people doing business on the Internet, and quickly we understand that there can be a lot of gray in the Golden Rule."
During his ethics workshops Crew helps clients determine if their people are on target in terms of exemplifying company values. He begins by evaluating the behavior of owners and managers in the following areas:
--Demonstrate: "The boss always sets the best example," observes Crew. "Be on guard about making snap decisions or taking quick action, to ensure that you're not setting precedents for violating or bending your rules. How the store manager deals with a customer sets the example of how other customers should be dealt with." Crew's advice: Don't make exceptions to the rule, unless you want others to follow suit.
--Articulate: Crew encourages owners and managers to give specific examples of how to treat stakeholders. "Discuss company values and show people how to demonstrate them on the job. Consider ethical conduct and values from the very beginning, which includes the hiring and orientation processes. Don't hire if you can't fire!"
--Educate: "Conduct regular meetings to provide examples of something good to say or do in a certain situation," notes Crew. "People need specifics, not generalities. And while it's important to teach employees about displays, inventories, and changing end caps, most training time should be devoted to teaching them how to conduct themselves and how they can personally help to differentiate their store from those of competitors."
--Evaluate: Supervision must be viewed as constant review and monitoring. "Praise in public and punish in private," advises Crew. "Use the intercom to announce that 'Doris in the deli just built a fantastic display,' and invite customers to the department for a visit. Conversely, if you don't have the guts to call someone on poor conduct or bad decision-making, you don't need to be in the business of having people work for you."
Besides evaluating management's behavior, Crew suggests establishing an in-store ethics committee to enhance corporate culture. "It doesn't have to be anything fancy or consist of 100 people," he says. "Invite a few of your most stellar employees to serve, those who set the example for others. Meet as often as necessary -- and as little as possible."
He adds, "I'm not in favor of inviting outsiders to participate in the ethics committee, as you don't want this group to turn into a board of directors. What you do want is a group that can help your company to make headlines for the right reasons."
Concludes Crew: "When we look at the big boys who've made the news, we realize that typically it's not over business issues, but about how somebody somewhere cut corners to make a number or someone's career look good. That's when business ethics and doing what's right were placed on the back burner, if not completely ignored."
Independent Retailing Editor Jane Olszeski Tortola can be reached at JanieOT@aol.com.