Last month, a Florida Dollar General store manager named Mary Gundel, created a six-part TikTok series called “Retail Store Manager Life” in which she described her working conditions at the store she ran.
Employee hours were severely limited by the company, she said, leading to her or another employee often working alone in the store. Shipments arrived unexpectedly, and with no staff to unpack them, she was forced by company policy to leave boxes stacked up in the aisles, blocking the store shelves and leading to customer complaints.
The TikTok videos went viral, and Dollar General fired her, even though it had informed her a couple of months earlier that she was in the top performing 5 percent of store managers. That was just one of a series of mistakes that has led the company down what must be a very uncomfortable path. Gundel became the focus of a New York Times feature that brought an even higher profile to both her videos and the hashtag she created, #PutInATicket, a reference to what she says is the company’s standard response when informed of untenable working conditions.
Other store managers and Dollar General employees have come forward, corroborating what Gundel has to say about life at Dollar General. She is reportedly in talks with attorneys, exploring the possibility of a class action suit. The event may have revived efforts to unionize some Dollar General locations, and at least some store employees are reportedly planning a walkout on Monday.
Dollar General probably didn’t want any of these things to happen. And maybe it could have prevented them, if only it had done a few things differently. Here are some lessons every leader can learn.
1. Don’t punish employees who point out problems.
“Don’t shoot the messenger” may sound like leadership 101 but it’s human nature to react to bad news by silencing or attempting to silence the person spreading that news. Dollar General was most likely legally within its rights to fire Gundel, particularly after she recorded video inside the store and posted it to social media. But was it a smart thing to do? The firing led directly to a huge New York Times feature story, increased attention for her TikTok videos, and widespread use of her #PutInATicket hashtag, which has had more than 23 million views on TikTok so far. If Dollar General’s goal was to bring wider attention to the problems at its stores, then mission accomplished. If it wanted to discourage public discussion of these issues, its approach seems to have backfired. (Dollar General did not reply to a request for comment.)
2. Don’t make the mistake of assuming employees have no recourse.
Dollar General tends to put its stores in underserved communities, where its low prices help bring in customers with limited financial resources. These communities may offer little in the way of attractive employment, especially for those without a college degree. A union official told the Washington Post, that he believes the chain places a high premium on having an “at-will” work force so it can fire employees any time for any reason other than those protected by Federal law, such as race or religion. In 2017, Dollar General actually closed a Connecticut store that had voted to unionize, citing an “assessment of the store’s future profitability.”
But those policies and procedures were devised in a time when unemployment was higher than it is today, and in the pre-pandemic time when most people gave little thought to the working conditions of front-line employees who interact with the public. Now that those workers have helped the rest of us get through the pandemic at a heightened risk to their own health, society views those jobs differently than it once did.
Meanwhile, platforms like TikTok, Reddit and an infinite number of other social media platforms means that overworked employees in stores stacked with items they’re too exhausted to put on shelves are no longer laboring in obscurity. In this new world, the unionization of an Amazon warehouse, which once seemed impossible, is now reality. Dollar General may be next, or maybe not. Either way, the chain, like every other employer, needs to adapt to this new world, or face the consequences.
3. Don’t put managers in an impossible situation.
One of the things that’s most striking about this story is that before her TikTok videos, Gundel was in the top five percent of the company’s most valued store managers. Although the chain’s business model depends on keeping all its costs as low as possible, it was paying her about $51,000 a year, well above the median income in Tampa. The company should ask itself what turned an enthusiastic, highly valued employee into a TikTok whistleblower.
Gundel is apparently not the only Dollar General store manager to feel like she’s in an impossible position. Someone posted a picture of a handwritten note to Reddit, that they said had been attached to a Dollar General door. It read: “This location will be closed Sunday (4-24-22) due to management not having any days off for over 40 days.”
That’s extreme, but it’s part of a larger pattern. Even before the pandemic, research showed that middle managers were the most overworked, stressed, and unhappiest employees in America, squeezed between upper management’s desire to cut costs and increase efficiency and employees’ need for decently paying jobs with sufficient resources and time off. Bad as things were, the pandemic and the Great Resignation have made them worse, and, like Gundel, middle managers across the country feel pushed to the breaking point.
There’s a growing audience of Inc.com readers who receive a daily text from me with a self-care or motivational micro-challenge or idea. (Interested in joining? Here’s more information and an invitation to an extended free trial. Many subscribers are entrepreneurs or business leaders, and a surprising number of the entrepreneurs tell me that they founded their own businesses after getting frustrated and burned out in a middle management role. If you have middle managers in your organization, it’s time to consider what’s being asked of them, and what resources they have to help them excel at their jobs.
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