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Why We Need a Workers' Bill of Rights Now

In 2006, Caitlin Kelly was laid off as a reporter from the New York Daily News. Suddenly, she found herself underpaid, hustling for freelance work, and socially isolated at age 50. Eager for some cash and a chance to get away from her computer, she took a retail floor job at North Face, the upscale outdoors clothing chain. The result was her wonderful, new book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail (due out in April).

Malled is reality journalism at its best, a raw education in the nature of American low-wage retail work before and during the devastating recession of 2007-2009. It also is a searing narrative of Kelly's experiences working in an upscale mall, laced with a national investigative skewering of the awful working conditions, low wages, and robotic big brother corporate leadership in the US retail sector.

Kelly nails many details--how handling store fabrics day after day opens sores on the hands, the isolated satisfaction of helping a customer and receiving a thank you, the uncomfortable intimacy of telling customers what clothes fit and don't, the pain of receiving a measly $25 holiday bonus while stores stage lavish parties for customers, the abuse heaped on workers one too many times on a Black Friday, her appreciation for the young Latino and African-American parents who needed their jobs to keep a roof over their heads and feed their kids.

Malled takes its place with Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, and Steve Greenhouse's The Big Squeeze as must-reads for any MBA candidate or manager seeking to improve employee morale, workforce retention, and customer experience--or simply treat people with more dignity and respect.

If you are a manager who wants to understand more about employees' basic job satisfaction, productivity, and morale, Malled will give you a primer for a 'workers bill of rights' that most retail operations or any workplace could begin instilling in about five minutes. Here's what should be on it:

  • Interview candidates in person, not through a software assessment, and provide at least some live, on the job training (this is one aspect of North Fact Kelly praised).
  • Know your employees' names and thank them.
  • Keep storage rooms, kitchens, and other areas not visible to customers or clients safe and neat (Kelly reports numerous injuries and accidents in the chaotic storage areas).
  • Provide adequate ventilation, loose fitting, breatheable clothing and allow workers access to water and seating for breaks and meals. Kelly describes the muggy store confines, sticky polyester uniforms, rules against where workers can place their drinks, and lack of seating (many workers would linger on the bathroom just to get a rest) at her workplace.
  • Respect wages. Increasing wages substantially can be tough in a down economy, but offer meaningful bonuses, reward employees who stay with you, pay for overtime.
  • Hold frequent shift scheduling meetings and plan ahead to minimize back-to-back and split shifts and surprise holiday duty;
  • Pay for custodial duties--don't ask floor or sales staff to clean the store, do security or clean the toilets (North Face forced floor workers to clean toilets).
  • The customer isn't always right. Educate customers about respectful treatment. Kelly's devastating descriptions of customer abuse and bullying are unforgettable. Kelly says the isolated nature of shopping (no one is watching you), the defenseless nature of retail floor workers "who can't spit in your soup," and the economic stress of recent times brings out the worst in customers.
  • Hear people out. Hold listening sessions and give employees a voice for suggestions and changes.
  • Know when employees are stretched to the limit, and find a way to give them a break. Kelly shows us the effects on employees of the holiday shopping rush with its out of control customers, long lines, and physical exhaustion.

Kelly respected her store manager, named Joe, a former Iraq combat medic who guided his team through corporate inspections, holiday stampedes, customer assaults, and employee conflicts. She found him, at book's end, returning from the hospital where he was treated for severe digestive problems. "I've been a medic," he told her. "I've been shot at. This is more stressful."

Herb Schaffner is president of Schaffner Media Partners, a consultancy specializing in business, finance, and public affairs publishing expertise, and is found on Facebook. He has been a publisher and editor-in-chief at McGraw-Hill, and a senior editor at HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter.
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