By: Noam Scheiber
To explain their infatuation with Trader Joe’s, fans of the offbeat grocery chain typically cite three factors: low prices, an appealing selection of high-end products and, perhaps above all, irrepressibly friendly employees.
The company’s workers are urged to walk customers to any item they couldn’t locate, tear open bags of food for impromptu tastings and accept returns with no questions asked.
That they go the additional step of doing it all with a smile is no accident. John Shields, the longtime chief executive who died two years ago and had personally interviewed prospective managers, once said he eliminated any candidate who didn’t flash a grin within 30 seconds.
Trader Joe’s also backed up its preference for cheerfulness with cash. Workplace experts have praised the company for its “good jobs” strategy of offering generous pay and benefits and recouping the cost through lower turnover and higher sales.
But in recent years, the patina of good cheer has masked growing strife and demoralization in some stores on the East Coast, far from the company’s base in California. A number of workers, known at Trader Joe’s as “crew members,” complain of harsh and arbitrary treatment at the hands of managers, of chronic safety lapses and of an atmosphere of surveillance.
Above all, some employees say they are pressured to appear happy with customers and co-workers, even when that appearance is starkly at odds with what is happening at the store.
“We are committed to maintaining a great and safe environment in which to work,” the company responded. “We promote an open and honest environment that encourages questions, suggestions or concerns to be raised.”
According to an unfair labor practices charge filed on Thursday with a National Labor Relations Boardregional office, Thomas Nagle, a longtime employee of the Trader Joe’s store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was repeatedly reprimanded because managers judged his smile and demeanor to be insufficiently “genuine.” He was fired in September for what the managers described as an overly negative attitude.
The morale issues appear concentrated at some of the company’s largest and busiest stores, including one where a union is trying to organize. Tensions have been heightened, according to several employees, by the pressure to remain upbeat and create a “Wow customer experience,” which is defined in the company handbook as “the feelings a customer gets about our delight that they are shopping with us.”
Still, many employees think of the company fondly, some former crew members say. Maggie Dunham Jordahl, who has worked at three Trader Joe’s stores, said managers were nurturing and helpful.
But in interviews, Mr. Nagle, who recorded several performance reviews with his managers and made the recordings available to The New York Times, described stockrooms piled high with products that fell on workers and harsh fumes that sometimes wafted through the store and sickened workers.
He said managers would typically use the public address system to instruct workers to avoid talking to one another while they stocked shelves. He also said managers appeared to harass workers for the sport of it.
As an example, Mr. Nagle said a manager chastised him over the public address system for returning a sweatshirt to his locker after unloading goods in a freezer. “If anyone’s confused, there’s no product to work in the locker room,” the manager announced, he said.
Mr. Nagle’s filing challenges policies that appear in the Trader Joe’s crew handbook and job bulletins, and which were read aloud to him. One of the latter required employees to maintain a “positive attitude.”
Some labor experts say such policies may be illegal because federal labor law gives employees the right to discuss working conditions and the merits of joining a union with one another, and to complain about working conditions to the public, including customers. Any company rule that an employee would reasonably interpret as discouraging these activities is most likely to be illegal, according to Wilma Liebman, a former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board.
In a decision involving T-Mobile earlier this year, the labor relations board struck down a rule in that company’s handbook that said: “Employees are expected to maintain a positive work environment by communicating in a manner that is conducive to effective working relationships.”
For its part, Trader Joe’s said in a statement: “We do not fire crew members for trivial reasons. We pride ourselves on operating our business with integrity and adhering to the law at all times.”
Mr. Nagle said that as conditions deteriorated at his store, workers reached out to organizers at the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, who helped them begin making the case to co-workers for unionizing. The union is providing Mr. Nagle’s legal representation.
Other employees in stores across the Northeast and Middle Atlantic regions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their jobs, echoed Mr. Nagle’s description of stockroom hazards and managers’ behavior. A former worker in Brooklyn said that if two workers spoke to one another for more than a minute or two while on the job, often a manager would appear and ask, “What’s going on?”
Gammy Alvarez, who works at the Manhattan store where Mr. Nagle did, described being reprimanded for sipping water while working at the checkout because, a manager said, she was taking too long between customers.
Workers at two other stores, including one in Brooklyn, said that good employees who committed minor infractions or asked managers legitimate questions disappeared with no explanation. Weeks or months later, their co-workers learned they had been fired.
The treatment, which may not be unusual for the retail sector, is at odds with Trader Joe’s reputation for positivity, and with the image the company takes pains to project.
Managers were determined to have employees remain cheery with colleagues as well their customers. Mr. Nagle’s girlfriend, Vanessa Erbe, also worked in the store and said she once gently complained to a manager about being stranded at a demonstration stand for 20 minutes after her eight-hour shift ended. The next day, a second manager asked her to write the first manager a letter of apology. “It was demoralizing,” she said.
Transcripts of three of Mr. Nagle’s semiannual performance reviews leading to his ouster, after nearly three years of what he said were positive reviews, show managers praising his aptitude for the work but criticizing him for not being friendly enough with co-workers or customers.
After one review in which a manager said he was making “little effort in executing Trader Joe’s processes,” Mr. Nagle asked for an example. A second manager responded: “I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen you like genuinely smile.”
In Mr. Nagle’s final review before he was fired, he was criticized for not greeting a manager with sufficient feeling. “It’s not like, ‘Hey what’s going on,’ it’s like ‘Heh,’” the manager said. Mr. Nagle said that when he asked if the manager if he wanted a longer acknowledgment, he responded, “Yeah, but it’s got to be genuine. You have to want to be here.”
Mr. Nagle said that his work ethic never flagged — which his co-worker Ms. Alvarez affirmed — though he conceded he became more terse with managers as they largely ignored workers’ pleas to address the increasingly difficult work environment.
Mr. Nagle’s managers seemed to view him as one of the keys to his colleagues’ morale. “You have a lot of influence over the mood of the store,” a manager told him during a review. “Work to create a more fun and energetic experience for both our customers and your fellow crew.”
Trader Joe’s began in Pasadena, Calif., in 1967 as a convenience store that sold a variety of provisions, including deeply discounted wine. It later added health and gourmet food.
As the chain expanded to more than 150 stores across the country by the early 2000s, the founder Joseph H. Coulombe and his successor as chief executive, Mr. Shields, were adamant about preserving its quirky neighborhood vibe.
But with more than 400 stores generating over $10 billion in sales, according to estimates, the company culture appears to have evolved from an aspiration that could be nurtured organically to a tool that can be used to enforce discipline and stifle criticism.
“The environment in this job is toxic, but they’re trying to create this whole false idea that everything is cheery and bubbly,” Ms. Alvarez said. “I think they want us to be not real people.”