“It’s Not Really a Co-op”

Co-op employees have high expectations of their employers. And they should. We claim to run our businesses with multiple bottom lines. Co-ops’ vision and values statements frequently include “being a great workplace,” or “modeling ethical employment practices.” In an organization that promotes sustainability, a worker can reasonably ask if her or his wage is sustainable to live on over time.

Beyond their own working conditions and compensation, co-op employees frequently have high expectations about their employers’ social and environmental values as well. Especially in college towns and some urban neighborhoods, co-ops tend to attract idealistic young people motivated by concepts such as locally grown products, resistance to genetic engineering, community involvement, recycling and waste reduction, alternative diets, and worker participation in co-op operations.

These are values that many natural food co-ops profess. At the same time, as member-owned institutions and as businesses competing in the real world, co-ops strive to be inclusive and welcoming, to educate without dictating. When employees come to work at a co-op because of perceived shared values, they may be disappointed when the co-op does not model these values to the extent that they hoped for.

In employee surveys I’ve conducted, I often encounter a sense of disappointment and even betrayal among staff. When I ask what a co-op means to them, I receive an array of answers that have nothing to do with member ownership. When I ask how their store operates like a co-op, frequently I’ll hear responses along these lines: “Well, it’s true we have members and they elect a board, but it’s not really a co-op because…,” followed by an account of how “the members don’t get to vote on major decisions,” or “there’s a boss,” or “we sell a lot of stuff with excess packaging,” or “there’s too much emphasis on making money.”

Weren’t these employees given any education about co-ops? It turns out that, yes, they did receive information during orientation, whether in the form of printed material, a video, or a talk with the general manager or membership coordinator. But that was months or years ago, and it was part of a day crammed with new information. How much can people retain under those circumstances? And if they subsequently hear frequent complaints from coworkers about the co-op’s failure to live up to its mission and values, a negative and often erroneous view of co-ops gets reinforced.

Reality check

Maybe education about co-ops could be improved—but before we consider that, I would ask another question: Do applicants understand what a co-op is? More to the point, do they understand what this co-op is, where they are applying to work? The co-op may have an image in the community as a “laid back” workplace where employees are free to express their opinions in public. Or, because the co-op takes public stands on certain issues, applicants may believe that the co-op will uphold their personal concept of product purity. Do those who do the hiring give applicants a reality check? And what about the applicant with no previous exposure to co-ops, a person who is simply answering a help wanted ad? Is anyone taking steps to alert such an applicant to what is different about this potential employer?

Some years ago I worked with the owner of an independent natural foods store to help him put personnel policies in place. He had written a stringent dress code and a policy that severely restricted smoking on the premises. Employees had been hired with no knowledge of these policies, and only now were they made aware of them. The owner received strenuous complaints about both dress code and smoking restrictions. I suggested that we craft a cover letter for the job application that explained these policies and gave potential candidates a choice whether to proceed with an application, knowing the restrictive work rules they would have to live with.

The same approach could be used by co-ops. Hanover Cooperative has done just that. If you visit the jobs page of the co-op’s website (www.coopfoodstore.com/jobs.html) and download the application form, the first page is a note to applicants. This outlines expectations for employees in light of the co-op’s ideals of “friendly cooperation, excellent customer service, and a positive willingness to get the job done,” and acceptance of assigned schedules. The note goes on to say: “Not everyone can support these ideals. Those individuals who cannot agree with and support them probably will not enjoy employment at the Co-op.” Only those who agree with the requirements are encouraged to complete the application form.

Making a well-informed choice

According to Rosemary Fifield, education and member services director at Hanover, that co-op’s job market is more likely to bring applicants who are unfamiliar with co-ops than those who have unrealistic expectations of them. In fact, for people coming from years of working in chain grocery stores, “We have to teach them to lose their fear about speaking out.”

For co-ops that do not operate as collectives yet attract employees who might be looking for that experience, a “note to applicants” could explain the limits of employee involvement in decision-making. Applicants need to hear a clear message that their input will be solicited and welcome, in the context of an organizational structure where management has been hired by the owners’ representatives to make final decisions for the benefit of the owners.

More rigorous screening during hiring can lead to a more satisfied workforce and lower staff turnover. “We’ve raised the bar in hiring,” says Cheryl Clara, training coordinator at Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, where the store manager now approves all hires in the departments. As a result, “we have more of a can-do, serve-the-public attitude instead of ‘What’s the co-op giving me?’ We have people who think in terms of what they can do for others and the satisfaction that would give them.” Between instituting a livable wage and raising hiring standards, SNFC has experienced a dramatic drop in staff turnover, from 67 percent in 1998 to 26 percent in 2003.

Clara goes on to say, “If people write on their application that they have high-flying ideals, we address that in interviews.” This need not mean that idealists are unwelcome, only that they make a well-informed choice when they accept a job at the co-op. From responses to an open-ended question such as “What does a co-op mean to you?” interviewers will know whether they need to point out any gaps between the employee’s expectations and the co-op’s reality.

By thoughtful screening of applicants—and allowing applicants to screen themselves—co-ops are in a better position to provide effective education to staff about co-ops. It would be better to lose people as applicants than to hire them only to have them leave disappointed and angry because the co-op could not fill their high expectations.

Educating about co-ops

At Hanover, this education occurs during the one-day orientation session. New employees watch a video on the co-op’s history. Co-op mission and expectations of employees get covered in presentations by staff from the human resources, education, and front end departments. Since cashiers and baggers get the most questions about membership, they receive more intensive training than other staff, reinforced with a stack of brochures at each checkstand. The co-op also uses a customized training manual created by Karen Zimbelman. During the orientation new staff are given the manual with the option to take a test based on the material. If they pass with 85 percent or better, they receive a $25 gift certificate.

However, according to Fifield, a lot of co-op education happens through example, through the words and actions of the employees who do “get it.” “Our employees understand that our members are owners, that we’re buyers for them and not sellers to them,” explains Fifield. That’s why—to the surprise of employees from conventional grocery stores—“We tell the Coke delivery man what to bring us, not vice versa.”
“O Week” and N.E.T.

Instead of one-day of orientation, Outpost Natural Foods Co-op in Milwaukee puts employees through a whole week. Dubbed “O Week,” the program includes a 45-minute segment about co-ops and a presentation by the general manager with a slide show on Outpost’s history. The cooperative principles are prominently displayed on the wall in the room where orientations take place, along with a map showing locations of food co-ops across the United States. “We show them that we’re not just two stores in Milwaukee,” says human relations manager Kari Kaminski, creator of O Week. “We’re part of something really big.”

At the end of O Week, all participants fill out a test on what they’ve learned with several questions specifically about co-ops. In addition, owner services coordinator Mari Niescior-Skeels, who delivers the initial training on co-ops, follows up a month later with a knowledge test for cashiers and customer service desk staff.

O Week inspired the New Employee Training (N.E.T.) program at Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, although the content is packaged in two consecutive days rather than a week. On the first day, new workers receive the co-op owner brochure and cooperative principles. On the second day they hear a 45-minute “Introduction to Cooperatives,” following a scripted facilitator guide, and covering a co-op statement of identity; a brief history of co-ops; the differences between sole proprietorships, publicly-owned corporations and co-ops; SNFC’s own history and structure; owner benefits and how to join.

Once a year, employees who have not already done so are required to attend a presentation by long-time cooperator David Thompson. As at Outpost and Hanover, front-end staff receive additional on-the-job training to be able to answer customer questions. One measure of the success of SNFC’s training program is that at any given time 75 percent to 80 percent of employees are co-op owners.

Co-ops 202

As of this writing, I’m not aware of any co-ops providing advanced or ongoing employee training about co-ops. However, Outpost and SNFC have it on their horizons. At SNFC, advanced co-op training would focus on retail finances. As Clara envisions it, some material on finances currently presented during the first year of employment could be presented later in an employee’s career, giving more time to understand the context.

The connection between finances on the one hand and cooperative structure and governance on the other is a fertile subject for further staff education. As long as employees see a contradiction between fulfilling the co-op’s mission and making money, they will see no reason to support management’s efforts to run a profitable store.

By setting high standards in hiring, by giving applicants enough information to make informed choices, and by providing ongoing education, co-ops can provide a workplace where employees can hold realistic high expectations of their employer—and have them met.

See other articles from this issue: #113 July - August - 2004