At Whole Foods, a ‘Survivor’-like ritual


Fresh produce at a Whole Foods Market store. The company has a profit-sharing model for its employees. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

Company: Whole Foods Market.

Area locations: 16 area stores.

Number of employees: 5,000 locally; 66,000 worldwide.

Annoyed with a colleague? At Whole Foods Market, you can vote them off the island — or rather, out of the company.

“If there’s someone who’s not working hard, who’s not putting in everything they can, the team can say, ‘You know what? We don’t want you to drag us down,’ ” said Libba Letton, who handles corporate communications for the chain of specialty grocery stores.

New hires are voted in — or out — by their teams after their first 90 days at the company. A two-thirds majority is required to keep an employee on board.

“It’s actually really nice because it makes you feel like you have a say in what goes on,” said Mirian Alvarenga, a graphic artist at the Whole Foods Market in Friendship Heights.

The policy works in part because the company relies on a profit-sharing model, Letton said. Employees receive bonuses at the end of each quarter based on the number of internal goals their team has met.

“We have this sense of shared fate,” Letton said, adding that employees also vote on their benefit plans and stock options every three years.

The logistics of the actual vote are left up to each team. Some collect votes by e-mail, whereas others prefer to do so in person.

“In my case, there was a team meeting and it was just like ‘OK, Libba, leave the room for a minute and we’ll all vote on whether you stay or not,” Letton said. “Thankfully I had a good idea things were going to be fine.”

Employees say the vast majority of new hires are approved by their teams. Newly-hired managers are evaluated by their peers, not their employees.

“It’s almost always positive,” said Alvarenga, who has been working at the company for 13 years. “It’s just a matter of the team agreeing with what the manager has already decided.”

Clare Bender, marketing team leader at the Friendship Heights store, began working at the company in October. In January, her team voted to keep her on.

“It makes you feel like you really deserve to be a part of the team,” Bender said, “Like everyone wants you to be there.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local retail, hospitality and banking for The Washington Post. She has previously written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.

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