Much has been said about how we as human beings have been communicating with each other, especially when we disagree. There is plenty to be grateful for, in the discourse that is happening around a very problematic cultural fabric we live in and contribute to—namely, that we are finally beginning, very slowly and painfully, to grapple with differences. But the impulse to escalate into violent or threatening rhetoric is quick, and it’s all of our responsibility to face this and change it.
At the Co-op, we’ve been working hard to engender a respectful workplace for years now. It’s a focus in our new employee orientation sessions, in a variety of contexts: customer service, internal customer service, relationships with our community partners and vendors, and diversity and inclusion discussions. Last summer, in negotiation with the UFCW representatives over the new contract, we added language in our contract recognizing the mutual importance of this concept, and the need to investigate and deal with any complaints promptly and effectively, in the pursuit of a healthy working environment.
Seems straightforward, right? But in the era of #MeToo, the situation can often be murky and difficult to resolve. Still, we persist. We have begun to schedule all-staff trainings to understand our roles as observers of and bystanders to behavior that is unacceptable in a healthy workplace. We are also soliciting proposals for unconscious bias trainings, and will continue to explore ways to coexist better and, by extension, continue to improve the atmosphere in our store for patrons.
But recently, I have been challenged in applying this same expectation of respect and dignity to the behavior of a few of these patrons. It is surprising, really, what a few Co-op customers think they can do in our store, just because…we are a co-op, they own us…what have you. We are not alone; when I talk with other general managers, I hear a multitude of stories that will curl your hair. All store managers have had to deal with a long list of transgressions, and many of them required those managers to take steps they wished they had not had to take. Bad behavior is bad behavior, however, and we cannot, on the one hand, ask our staff to be the very best that they can be, yet stand by while customers disrespect them to such a degree. We understand that people have bad days, and we know that some of our customers struggle with challenges that make it really difficult for them to exhibit kind behavior every time they come in. But occasionally, we witness behavior that we cannot ask our staff to stand by and ignore. If someone threatens a staff member, they will be asked to leave and not return. That’s all there is to it. If they are a shareholder, and theoretically care about our business as an owner, they will have the capacity to understand that this is something that we have to do to protect our staff, and to preserve a respectful marketplace in which all of us are comfortable.
We don’t enjoy having to spend considerable time and energy dealing with this. After all, we want to sell groceries and support our community in creative ways; that alone takes a lot of time and energy. We try to be compassionate in our reactions, and we routinely give people a second chance after they have acknowledged and understood our stance regarding their past transgressions and have improved their behavior. But in my continuing attempt to be as transparent as possible, without violating any confidences, I urge you to support us in making our Co-op the friendliest, most enjoyable market we can imagine.
By Sabine Rhyne, General Manager