Walmart's Powerful Corporate Supporters

Last Updated Jun 21, 2011 11:13 AM EDT

There is so much wrong with the Supreme Court verdict on the Walmart women's class action suits that it is hard to know where to begin. The argument that large groups of employees cannot band together to fight discrimination turns a blind eye to the cripplingly high legal costs and personal risks involved in individual suits. Justices may have jobs for life - but the rest of us lack that sense of security.

Walmart is Not Alone
But what's most shocking to me about the outcome of this case is the degree to which corporate America wanted this outcome. Specifically, GE, Costco, Bank of America and Microsoft wrote to the court asking for the verdict which they got. The idea that they might be subject to the law, that individuals might band together to fight corporate injustice, was something both companies found abhorrent and frightening.

You have to ask: if the companies are doing nothing wrong, what do they have to fear? Does anyone seriously imagine that the Walmart women brought their suit for fun - in all their spare time?

What Walmart women could do next

Unfortunately, they don't have a lot of great options.

They could try to raise the money to bring thousands of individual cases. But the only real beneficiaries of that strategy would be the lawyers.

They could ask their sisters to boycott the stores - but, alas, there's little evidence that women will stop shopping there, even out of solidarity.

As many as can find employment elsewhere will already have done so.

In fact, of course, the Walmart women are left without a remedy, trapped in a situation where only the accused can offer relief. The structural problem here is one of bias: of course the Walmart managers don't think they're biased; no one ever does. Yet all the evidence shows that all human beings are biased -- in favor of people like themselves. That's why you need outsiders and it's why you sometimes need the law to see with different eyes.

Has Walmart already learned its lesson?
There are some who say that Walmart has; that years of being attacked as being female-unfriendly have changed the culture. And many of my colleagues tell me the change of heart is sincere. I'm not entirely convinced. What I do know is that when vast corporations ask for legal defense against their employees, everyone loses.

Photo courtesy of Brave New Films C.C. 2.0

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.