A Bid to Get Religion? Wal-Mart Hires Ex-Nun

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Harsh public criticism can make any company search for redemption. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is hoping a former nun will help bring salvation.

The world's largest retailer has hired Harriet Hentges, a former nun and foreign conflict mediator, to help steer the company's policies on the environment, health care and labor relations -- three areas where Wal-Mart's public image has suffered.

Hentges, 65, this week assumed the newly created position of senior director of stakeholder engagement. She will work with nonprofit organizations, academic groups and government agencies to "lead the company's sustainability efforts," Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sarah Clark said.

"We want to be up front and do our part to be a better business," she said.

In 1958, Hentges joined the order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, a group known for its work in education and health care. Clark said she did not know why Hentges left the order in 1972. Hentges could not be reached for a comment yesterday.

Hentges served as chief operating officer of the League of Women Voters before joining the United States Institute of Peace, where she led mediation and reconstruction efforts in Iraq and the Balkans. She earned a PhD in international economics from Johns Hopkins University.

Critics of Wal-Mart say the personnel choice reflects the company's defensive stance on environmental and health care issues.

In recent months, the company has reached out to several environmental groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense, and has begun a program to teach its 1.3 million U.S. workers about healthy living and energy conservation.

But that hasn't been enough, said Chris Kofinis, a spokesman for Wake Up Wal-Mart, a union-funded group critical of the company.

He said he hopes hiring Hentges indicates that Wal-Mart understands "that it must now do better."

Wal-Mart "must walk away from is history of inaction and publicity stunts," he said. "It must become a better company that pays a living wage, provides affordable health care and reflects the best of American values."

Plenty of companies reach out to people of faith for guidance, said Patricia Wolf, executive director of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. Wal-Mart, however, may be the first to hire someone with Hentges's background to a position of such stature, she said.

"Judging by her résumé, she probably hasn't been a nun for a very long time," Wolf said. "The real issue here is that Wal-Mart is taking environmental and healthcare issues seriously and is dedicating personnel to help reach a higher standard."

Hentges was hired for her "understanding of complex issues" rather than her religious background, Clark said.

The fact that she was a once a nun "had nothing to do with it," she said.

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