Be Careful What You Ask For, Jerry Stritzke

The phrase “be careful what you ask for” now seems to apply to Jerry Stritzke, CEO of outdoor retailer REI.

On Nov. 10, he participated in Reddit’s AMA, or “Ask Me Anything,” feature where people asked him about the company’s decision to stay closed during Black Friday so employees could “spend the day with loved ones.” He got more than he bargained for.

Many comments were quickly posted about pay, appraisals and other problems related to working for the company. I am sure this was unexpected. After all, he had just given all employees a day off with pay. Why would he have expected any vitriol? In response to the unexpected barrage of employee complaints, Stritzke put a positive face on the situation and basically stated that transparency was good, and he would address the concerns.

While I don’t know Stritzke personally, much of what I read on the Internet leads me to believe he’s a nice guy, and I am sure that he wants to run REI in a people-centric fashion.

In a past blog, I made a similar statement about CEO Jeff Bezos. The problem in both of these situations is that intention counts little. It is the impact of words and actions that concern and affect employees.

From what I know about human behavior, it would suggest that in both cases these companies have a negative reinforcement workplace culture. In negatively reinforcing environments, people work more to avoid blame and disappointing their superiors than for any reward that they may get for good performance. The executives who make decisions that they pass down the management chain most often make them because they think it will be good for the company, and thus good for the employees.  In many cases, they are not.

When I was in the process of writing the book “OOPS! 13 Management Practices That Waste Time and Money,” business audiences gave me their list of broken-down practices that I should include. When I would ask if they had told management about these things being a waste, the typical response was, “Are you kidding?” In other words, no one is going to tell the king that he is naked when he thinks he is well dressed.

The problem is that once you have a negative culture, no one will tell you for fear of some negative response, including getting fired. While executives often say, “That is a myth,” the employees believe it is not. 

Of course, the perception didn’t come from nowhere. Some things that employees witnessed or some stories that they had been told caused them to keep things to themselves (in other words, their consequence history). Even workplace surveys, in many businesses, cause employees to fear honesty and not tell management how the work environment actually is.

My advice to Jerry (and Jeff), outside of bringing in behavioral workplace experts in to assess the culture, is to have Undercover Boss do an episode on REI and Amazon so that they can get a better view of how employees really feel about decisions, rules and processes the company has implemented. I think they will be surprised.