Beyond Unions

By Eve Tahmincioglu

May. 29, 2004

Coleman peterson, Wal-Mart’s former executive vice president of people, left behind a company facing a human resources public relations nightmare.

    While the 56-year-old human resources veteran says he departed the company voluntarily in April because “there were other things in my life I wanted to do” after 32 years in retailing, some labor experts wonder if he was a fall guy.

    “Wal-Mart’s image as an employer has been really going downhill, and it’s been on this guy’s watch,” notes Paul Clark, professor of labor studies and industrial relations at Penn State University. “You would think he would have to accept responsibility or blame for the rocky road they’ve had in recent years.”

    Peterson, now president and CEO of Hollis Enterprises, an organizational consulting firm he founded in Bentonville, Arkansas, was not on hand to help his replacement, Lawrence V. Jackson, with the transition. He’d left Wal-Mart several months before Jackson began his new job in October. But at the behest of Wal-Mart chairman Lee Scott, Peterson says he entertained Jackson and his wife, Kimberly, before Jackson started the job and that they talked about relocation issues.

    While Jackson has no human resources experience, Peterson says he’s “very excited” that he was hired. “He has operated at the senior operations level, which gives him some good strategic management skills, and that with the fact that he’s surrounded with great HR people with great competency will work well.”

    He predicts that Jackson will have his hands full dealing with immense projects ranging from protecting the Wal-Mart brand to developing workplace technology to be used to hire and promote employees.

    “Wal-Mart has always had a great reputation, but there are constituents out there that are not interested in allowing Wal-Mart to retain that good reputation–labor unions, for example,” Peterson says.

    Some labor experts believe one of Jackson’s main tasks will be keeping unions out, but Peterson calls that “a myopic view.”

    “Our belief is we don’t need unions at Wal-Mart to represent workers,” he says. But he adds that “the principal role of Lawrence Jackson will be to get good people, keep good people and grow good people.”

    As for technology, Peterson says Wal-Mart is in the process of rolling out a new program using technology to promote and hire employees, and that Jackson will play a key role in its implementation. When a potential worker walks into a Wal-Mart store they’ll be able to apply online, and that information will go into a centralized database.

    This system is already being rolled out at the retailer’s stores across the country, he says. And on the horizon, Wal-Mart plans to use technology to marry an employee’s career interests to the jobs available. “No one person is smart enough to know how to do that effectively with an organization of 1.5 million people,” he says. “Technology is.”

    With a large class-action discrimination lawsuit pending against Wal-Mart, such types of systems may end up becoming a requirement for the retail giant in order to ensure that its promotion practices are fair as it continues to grow. In the lawsuit, which was filed in June 2001 by six female Wal-Mart employees and gained class status last year, one of the allegations is that women were denied promotions.

Peterson himself has become embroiled in the discrimination suit. A memo he wrote in February 2001 to Wal-Mart’s executive committee discussing a Catalyst study on female corporate officers and top earners at Fortune 500 firms is now a plaintiffs’ exhibit in the case. “Although Wal-Mart has made improvements over the last five years in this endeavor, we are still behind both the Fortune 500 and general merchandisers in the development of women into corporate officers,” the memo states.

    “What I meant was, we were continually making progress,” Peterson says of the memo. “The question is, is it fast enough, high enough? An organization never improves itself without being critical of itself. It’s a positive process.”

Workforce Management, March 2005, p. 37Subscribe Now!

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