“As we’ve seen before, these horrific events occur and then the spotlight fades,” declared Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart, America’s largest corporate employer. “We should not allow that to happen. Congress and the administration should act.” McMillon announced several moves that bring the spotlight back again.
While big companies have traditionally shied away from politically polarized issues, that’s changing recently, with Walmart taking a more aggressive position on gun control. The company announced this week that it would stop selling ammunition for military-style assault rifles and handguns, it will begin “respectfully requesting” that customers refrain from openly carrying weapons inside the company’s stores, and it will ask Congress to increase background checks and consider bringing back the U.S. assault-weapons ban.
McMillon had signaled earlier that the company would be making such moves in the aftermath of the mass shooting a month ago at a Walmart store in El Paso, where a gunman killed 22 people. Walmart is not only the largest U.S. retailer, with 4,000 stores, but also the largest seller of guns and ammo. For years, the company had been narrowing its selection of firearms, ending handgun sales in the 1990s (except for Alaska, where handgun sales will now end as well) and halting sales of assault rifles in 2015.
Given the Walmart’s roots in Arkansas and its omnipresence in rural America, the company has moved only gradually on the issue, even as overall public sentiment in the U.S. has increasingly favored greater gun control. But events have pushed the company into a position of leadership, especially given its scale. “Any decision that a company that is that big and that ubiquitous makes is going to please some people and upset others,” Aron Cramer, chief executive of BSR, a nonprofit group that advocates social responsibility in business, told the New York Times. “It is extremely hard not to take action when people are dying at one of your stores.” Walmart will continue to sell more traditional hunting firearms, but it estimates that its share of the U.S. ammunition market will fall to about 6%, down from 20% currently.
Despite Walmart’s huge small-town presence, the company has to consider the sentiments of its much more diverse stakeholders, who include urban and coastal customers as well as young people, all of whom tend to advocate stronger rules on gun safety. “The company is also trying to build its online business to compete with Amazon by recruiting younger engineers and developers, who are attracted to companies that profess social values that reflect their own,” the Times reported.
One of the trickiest things to enforce of Walmart’s new positions is its request that customers refrain from openly carrying guns in its stores, even in states where doing so is legal. Not long after Walmart’s announcement, Cincinnati-based Kroger, the largest U.S. supermarket chain, asked that its customers stop openly carrying guns into its stores and called for stronger background checks on gun buyers.
“The retailer will likely use new signage at entrances asking customers to leave weapons behind, but the retailer did not explain what store associates will do in the event a shopper shows up with a rifle slung over their shoulder or with a gun holstered on their hip,” the Cincinnati Enquirerreported.Thirty-one states allowthe open carrying of handguns without any license or permit, the result of dramatic changes in state laws over the past three decades to make such laws more lenient. Open carrying of long guns is permitted in 44 states.
Could the moves by such retail giants embolden other companies? “It’s a positive step in the right direction,” said Mike Dowling, CEO of of Northwell Health, New York State’s largest health-care provider and private employer, told CNN. Dowling, who who has written about gun violence as a “public health crisis,” likened Walmart’s move to CVS’ decision to stop selling tobacco products in 2014 out of a concern for public health.
“Employee engagement” has become a mantra in Corporate America, for the most part signaling a healthy desire for their employees to feel fulfilled in their work—and thus productive too.
But is there a point where this virtue becomes a vice? New academic research suggests that employees who become too devoted to the job can start to exhibit negative qualities. Among them: having unrealistic expectations of their co-workers, showing a disregard for rules and regulations, and having problems in their personal lives, reports journalist Alina Dizik in the Wall Street Journal.
“Deeply engaged employees who become more difficult to manage can be overly demanding of superiors and become suspicious of their intentions, says Stuart Bunderson, professor of organizational ethics and governance at Washington University in St. Louis,” writes Dizik. “When Prof. Bunderson first started looking at how zookeepers derived meaning from their work, for example, he learned that many tend to look at their job as a calling. That, in turn, made them tougher to manage than less-engaged employees. They also expected more from those above them. The zookeepers objected to placing a carousel at the zoo, for instance, because they saw it as trivializing the zoo’s mission, until it was repositioned to promote conservation, Prof. Bunderson found.”
The issue is relevant at a time when employee burnout has been recognized as a rising problem and hustle culture, particularly among millennial workers in the tech industry, has come under attack as unsustainable. The issue: at what point does having a moral purpose on the job go too far, to the point of workers losing perspective? “There’s no such thing as acceptable compromises or good enough when things are framed in moral terms,” said Prof. Bunderson.
What can companies do to foster moderation? Some of the proposed solutions from researchers may raise eyebrows among human-resources executives. Companies have come to believe that corporate social responsibility (CSR) and volunteerism are valuable tools for employee recruiting and retention, but some researchers on employee engagement think companies should lighten up on such programs. Instead, businesses should focus on the less-engaged employees rather than pushing programs across the board, Tomas Chamorro, chief talent scientist at staffing agency ManpowerGroup, told the Journal. “We still want them to be engaged, but moderately engaged,” he said. “A certain degree of dissatisfaction is very positive.”
In Corporate America, the glass ceiling is cracking a bit more this year. The number of Fortune 500 companies with female CEOs had been steadily rising over two decades, until slipping backward last year, to just 24. But now a new record has been set, thanks to the appointment of Heyward Donigan as CEO of Pennsylvania-based Rite Aid, the third-largest U.S. drugstore chain. That brings the total to 36, says Fortune.
Donigan, 58, had been CEO of Sapphire Digital, a platform for analyzing the differences in health-care plans. She joins several other women ascending to the top job in recent months. AutoNation, the Florida-based car retailer, last month named Cheryl Miller, 47, as its first-ever female CEO, a promotion from her previous role as CFO. In April, Minnesota-based Best Buy named Corie Barry, 44, to the top spot at the giant retailer; she too had previously served as CFO.
However, Donigan’s new gig at Rite Aid “isn’t all popping champagne corks. Indeed, there’s plenty about it that screams ‘glass cliff!,’” wrote Fortune’s Kristen Bellstrom in the publication’s Broad Sheet newsletter, referring to the perception that women are often appointed to leadership roles when the situation is dire and the risk of failure is high. Marissa Mayer’s tenure at Yahoo comes to mind.
“Rite Aid has struggled mightily in recent years, as this Wall Street Journal story details,” wrote Bellstrom. “The company sold roughly half its stores to competitor Walgreens after regulators blocked a 2017 merger between the two. Then a deal to merge with grocery chain Albertsons fell apart, prompting the announcement that [Donigan’s predecessor John Standley] would step down and that the company would cut 400 corporate jobs. Since then, Rite Aid has seen its market share erode and its shares crater—the stock is down more than 50% this year.”
But Donigan is undaunted. “I recognized the opportunity to really revitalize Rite Aid,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s not just taking a hammer to the business. I have a strong point of view that pharmacies will continue to be physical,” suggesting that reports of the death of brick-and-mortar stores has been greatly exaggerated.
At $5 billion, it’s the largest fine in U.S. history for a privacy violation—and it comes with an increased burden of government scrutiny for the next two decades. In the settlement between the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Facebook, announced Wednesday after 16 months of investigation, the agency delivered a “stunning rebuke” to the social network as a repeat offender, as the Washington Post described it.
“Despite repeated promises to its billions of users worldwide that they could control how their personal information is shared, Facebook undermined consumers’ choices,” FTC chairman Joe Simons said in a statement. Facebook’s general counsel, Colin Stretch, said the settlement would “mark a sharper turn toward privacy, on a different scale than anything we’ve done in the past.”
In going after Facebook, the FTC accused the company of violating a consent decree it had struck with the agency in 2011, when Facebook promised to improve its privacy protections. After several more recent mishaps, most notably when the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica obtained personal data on 87 million Facebook users, the FTC renewed its pursuit of tougher consumer safeguards.
Even with this new agreement, however, critics of the deal feel that Facebook got off lightly. The company didn’t have to admit guilt, its founder Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t singled out for rebuke in the settlement, and the deal doesn’t really challenge Facebook’s business model for monetizing its users’ information, critics said. The two Democrats on the FTC panel both voted to reject the deal, with member Rebecca Kelly Slaughter arguing that the FTC should have gone to court to pursue tougher fines and conditions, rather than settling.
The decision comes at a time when America’s dominant tech platforms—in particular Amazon, Facebook and Google—have gone from being revered as economic superstars to serving as popular political targets.
“Only Big Tech could bring together [Attorney General] Bill Barr and Elizabeth Warren,” declared CNBC. The companies are “politically caught in the crosshairs,” Brian Yacktman, founder of YCG Investments, told the network. “What’s bipartisan is that people are concerned about companies having too much power and too much control over data so they want regulation.”
In a Presidential campaign season, the debate is broadly over how to curb that power, whether it’s by regulating the companies through new legislation, or by pursuing antitrust action to limit their powers.
On the same day the FTC announced its Facebook action, Barr’s Justice Department opened a major antitrust investigation of the big tech companies to find out “whether their online platforms have hurt competition, suppressed innovation or otherwise harmed consumers,” the Associated Press reported. “Without the discipline of meaningful market-based competition, digital platforms may act in ways that are not responsible to consumer demands,” the department’s chief antitrust officer, Makan Delrahim, said in a statement.
The backlash against corporate invasion of privacy is happening not only at the federal level, but locally as well. The New York City Council, for example, is considering a bill to ban the sale of cellphone-location data.
“The bill, which was introduced on Tuesday, would make it illegal for cellphone companies and mobile app developers to share location data gathered while a customer’s mobile device is within the five boroughs,” the New York Times reported. “Cellphone companies and mobile apps collect detailed geolocation data of their users and then sell that information to legitimate companies such as digital marketers, roadside emergency assistance services, retail advertisers, hedge funds or—in the case of a class-action lawsuit filed against AT&T—bounty hunters.” New York would be the first city to impose such a ban.
Not since NFL players took a knee during the national anthem has a social issue got such a boost from a sporting event. When the U.S. Women’s Nation Team (USWNT) won its record fourth World Cup soccer championship on Sunday, jubilant spectators chanted not only “U-S-A” but also “Equal pay!”
The U.S. team’s victory, its second consecutive World Cup, backed up their campaign for equal pay with their male counterparts by presenting another dramatic example of the pay gap having nothing to do with performance. The U.S. men’s team, in contrast, failed even to qualify for the 2018 World Cup tournament and on Sunday lost to its rival Mexico in a regional championship.
In March, 28 members of the women’s team filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation for alleged discrimination “for substantially equal work and by denying them at least equal playing, training, and travel conditions; equal promotion of their games; equal support and development for their games; and other terms and conditions of employment equal to the [Men’s National Team].”
“Critics of women’s sports have long argued that poor performance and general lack of interest are valid reasons to not pay female athletes the same as their male counterparts, but do those arguments hold up?,” asks writer Lydia Dishman in Fast Company. Not hardly, she reports. The victories speak for themselves. “As for lack of interest, according to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. women’s soccer games have generated more revenue for the USSF than U.S. men’s games over the past three years. And according to FIFA, television ratings for the women’s final shattered records both here and abroad, with 28.1 million viewers worldwide and 6.1 million in the U.S.—despite not being on during prime time.”
“U.S. Soccer has welcomed the team’s success,” reported the New York Times, “even as it has challenged the players’ math, arguing that the situation is complicated by a compensation structure negotiated by each team that pays the men and women differently.”
Yet the women’s team could credibly argue that they have moved the ball, not only on the playing field and in court, but also in the realm of public opinion. “I think we’re done with: Are we worth it? Should we have equal pay? Is the market the same? Yada yada,” the American midfielder Megan Rapinoe said, adding: “We—all players, every player at this World Cup—put on the most incredible show that you could ever ask for. We can’t do anything more, to impress more, to be better ambassadors, to take on more, to play better, to do anything. It’s time to move that conversation forward to the next step.”
Following the World Cup victory, U.S. Soccer and the women’s team are expected to go into mediation for the lawsuit, Dishman reported. “With their win at the World Cup, the [women’s team] is hot right now, and a prompt mediation may be more beneficial for both parties than lengthy legal proceedings,” said Kathleen McLeod Caminiti, an attorney with the Pay Equity Practice Group of Fisher Phillips, a national labor and employment law firm that represents employers, in a statement.
The notorious gender-pay gap, of course, isn’t confined to sports. It persists across a wide array of industries and has proven a stubborn problem to fix. “Retaining women and minorities, resolving pay gaps in compensation and increasing equity in the workplace take an unrelenting focus on structural obstacles, unconventional approaches to human resources and an uncompromising commitment to fostering a place where people want to stick around,” observed the Washington Post last month.