Changemakers: How the Nation’s Largest Employer Doubled Down on Employee Well-being to Get Through Crises

As the “Fortune 1” company and largest private employer in the United States, Walmart is in a position to drive massive change for frontline workers with every talent decision it makes. The retailer’s leaders understand and embrace that opportunity, particularly with regard to helping people face today’s unprecedented realities.

The events of 2020 triggered a seismic shift in consumers’ expectations about the leadership role businesses are in a position to play on critical social issues. The COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matters movement, and the economic, political, and social upheaval driven by those two developments prompted corporate leaders to think and act in ways that prioritized their people. The convergence of crises caused companies to consider how to incorporate the needs of the communities they serve and the workers they employ in their everyday business decisions.

Traditional business leaders who view social issues as unrelated to their business objectives are struggling with changes in consumer and community expectations. But a handful of forward-leaning corporate leaders are showing the “old guard” how it’s done. Donna Morris, executive vice president and chief people officer at Walmart, is one Changemaker who stepped up to lead in the midst of these crises. Under her guidance, the company has focused on the growth, development, and well-being of its people, and it has doubled down on equity and inclusion.

Walmart is a founding member of JFF’s Recover Stronger initiative, a coalition of companies responding to the pandemic unemployment crisis by investing in the well-being of their people. Through the initiative, Walmart has joined a community of Changemakers placing people and community at the center of recovery strategies.

How exactly is Walmart driving positive change for people and their communities? Carey O’Connor, senior strategist at JFF, recently had an opportunity to sit down with Morris to learn more.

CO: The pandemic changed consumer behavior overnight — people suddenly preferred to buy online and were less interested in buying inside stores. How did that change Walmart’s workplaces, and how is Walmart helping its employees with these changes?

Morris: When the pandemic hit and customer buying preferences changed, we had to rapidly expand our ecommerce and digital capabilities. To give you a sense of scale, Walmart increased its U.S. ecommerce sales by 79 percent in the most recent fiscal year, which ended Jan. 31, 2021. This required us to rethink how our store associates — who make up the majority of our 1.5 million employees in the United States — work every day. Prior to the pandemic, most of our associates worked in the front of the stores — manning cash registers and customer service, organizing carts, answering questions. . . . But, when customers shifted their shopping from buying in stores to buying online, we needed to move our associates into the store aisles.

We saw this as an opportunity to empower our associates to make more business decisions, expand their skill sets and use their sense of creativity. We implemented a new team-based operating model in which small teams of associates are cross-trained and given ownership of the work in a section of a store. The team-based model also provides associates with a more flexible work environment for when they want to take time off or just need extra help during a busy shift.

It’s great to hear that change sparked an opportunity to empower workers. You mentioned associates are learning skills needed for higher-paying jobs in stores. How is this actually happening? How are you helping associates learn skills that help them advance?

We take talent development and promotion from within seriously. Our CEO, Doug McMillon, started his career working as an hourly associate at Walmart unloading trucks, and 75 percent of the members of our store management teams started as hourly associates. On average, we promote approximately 500 U.S. associates a day to jobs with more responsibility and higher pay. We also expect two-thirds of our Walmart U.S. hourly store roles to be full-time by the end of the fiscal year. Prioritizing full-time roles is an important part of providing growth and career opportunities for our associates.

To help our associates prepare themselves for their next job, Walmart built Walmart Academies and Live Better U (LBU), one of the largest employer-based educational benefits programs in the United States. The Walmart Academies provide free, immersive training for associates in our supercenters. Associates can receive both classroom and sales floor training in advanced retail skills and soft skills like leadership, communication, and change management. Through LBU, Walmart helps associates earn a college degree or a certificate for the equivalent of $1 per day. Associates also have access to support like free student coaching, college credit for Walmart training and career pathways for LBU graduates.

Last year, we added in-demand skilled trade and digital skills programs, and we expanded eligibility to all part- and full-time Walmart and Sam’s Club associates starting on their first day of employment.

Education programs and supports are a key lever to help drive economic mobility in the communities we serve. The majority of associates who have engaged in an LBU program are female and between the ages of 30 and 40. Forty-seven percent are people of color.

I’ve read that Walmart is the largest corporate employer of individuals who are Black in the United States. You employ around 300,000 Black associates. How has Walmart changed as the Black Lives Matter movement has grown more prominent?

George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 was a clarion call for change in corporate America. His tragic death crystalized the need for change. Personally, it helped me understand the American Dream is not the same for everyone, and it made me want to be a part of the change that we are seeing happen. Reversing decades of systemic racism in the workplace will take more than a quick fix. We have taken several immediate actions but are also thoughtfully thinking of additional long-term changes.

It’s inspiring to hear corporate leaders acknowledge their critically important role here. Companies have a unique opportunity to step out as leaders and take action that drive real results. What immediate actions did Walmart take?

Last summer, we reached out to our Black associates and our extended leadership team to talk about what was going on in our communities. Leaders are action-oriented — we immediately wanted to do something, and just talking seemed inadequate. But there is not a recipe card telling us what we should do. We needed to listen and learn, to hear our associates’ voices and understand what they were feeling and experiencing. In one week alone, we spoke with 10,000+ associates. The conversations were powerful and informative — I learned a lot. I realized that Walmart needed to not only take action within our company but also help drive systemic change in corporate America and in our communities.

To start, we required all Walmart officers to take a two-day interactive Racial Equity Institute workshop to ensure that all of our leaders share the same understanding of what racial inequality is and Walmart’s commitment to change. We also created and introduced a race and inclusion curriculum for our U.S. associates to help them understand cultural competencies, inclusive leadership and how to become an ally. As of January 2021, more than 105,000 total learning paths have been completed. We deeply examined our hiring and talent development people practices and made changes to make them more inclusive. We also created shared value networks focused on influencing financial, health care, education, and criminal justice systems, both inside our walls and externally.

To hold ourselves accountable for making sure these changes have the desired results, we expanded our public reporting on the diversity of our global team, providing 90 additional data points and committing to provide the report twice a year instead of just once a year. Walmart also committed $100 million over five years to change society’s systems that perpetuate racism and discrimination — $14.3 million has been distributed to 16 nonprofit organizations with more grants coming soon.

That’s impressive to see you take the initiative and not wait to create near-term change. But it’s often the longstanding strategies that make real social impact. You mentioned planning for long-term changes as well. How are you approaching this?

I’m proud of our immediate actions and what we were able to do so quickly, but we know we need to do more. To help us think through additional changes that have the greatest chance for positive impact and are data-driven, we worked with McKinsey & Company on a comprehensive study of race in the workplace. The study culminated in a report called Race in the Workplace: The Black Experience in the U.S. Private Sector. This research represents one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind. We are internally using the report to have open, candid discussions on race at Walmart and to help us think through additional actions we will take. We’re also promoting the report for other businesses as a source for information and data-driven solutions.

Tackling racial inequality is a business imperative for us, and we want to get it right. Walmart has an incredible opportunity to be a role model for racial equity in the workplace.

While Walmart and other companies are embracing lessons from the Black Lives Matter movement, there is a hostile counter-response in some communities. Walmart customers come from both sides of the debate. How is the company handling its role in the middle and helping Walmart associates do the same?

Walmart prides itself on providing products and services that appeal to everyone — regardless of geography, race, gender, or income. A challenge of selling to such a large, diverse base of customers is that we can sometimes be a lightning rod for cultural issues. As we like to say, “Whatever is happening in the United States is happening at Walmart.”

We always use Walmart’s values as our guide in deciding how to handle controversial decisions and situations and encourage our associates to do the same. We ask our associates to give each other grace as we have uncomfortable conversations. Sometimes comments or questions that are well intentioned can come across as offensive or out of touch. We’re working to create safe spaces for people who are trying to learn and grow. We’re also being purposeful about what we are reading and listening to and encouraging our associates to do the same.

A crucial aspect of JFF’s Changemakers community is the shared strategies that are so important as we learn about what’s working in our effort to prioritize workers. What advice do you have for others who want to drive positive changes for workers in their companies or industries?

It’s so important to keep people at the heart of everything you do. The experiences we’ve all had over the past year underscore the importance of the growth, development, and well-being of your people, and that will continue as we look ahead to the “post-pandemic” world. No business can succeed and satisfy customer demand in the long term without first taking care of its people — providing a ladder of opportunity so they can grow and develop, fostering an equitable and inclusive workplace, and prioritizing their physical, emotional, and financial well-being. It’s a company’s responsibility to have strategies in place that help them live a better life.

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Jobs for the Future (JFF) drives transformation of the American workforce and education systems to achieve equitable economic advancement for all. www.jff.org