Wal-Mart’s promise to veterans: Good news or good P.R.?


In this Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011, photo, Wal-Mart employees Jon Christians and Lori Harris take job applications and answers questions during a job fair at the University of Illinois Springfield campus in Springfield, Ill. (Seth Perlman/AP)

In this economy, one might think news that a company that plans to hire 100,000 veterans would be met with nothing but heaps of praise.

But given the company in question is Wal-Mart Stores, that’s not quite the case. On Tuesday at the National Retail Federation show, Wal-Mart U.S. president and CEO Bill Simon announced that the retailing behemoth “will offer a job to any honorably discharged veteran within his or her first twelve months off active duty.” The company expects the number of hires to reach 100,000.

While the announcement was met with praise by veterans groups and others, and seen as a sign of economic optimism from a few, some observers appeared more skeptical about the news. It’s good P.R., and may not really be a sign of economic optimism, noted the Atlantic’s Jordan Weissmann: With a 37-percent turnover rate and 1.4 million employees in the United States, Wal-Mart’s huge hiring machine could simply be replacing people who are already leaving anyways. And it may not be altogether altruistic — Weissmann updated his post by pointing out that a tax credit for hiring veterans could save the company thousands of dollars per employee. Some labor groups also protested the company’s practices after the speech.

Skepticism over corporate social responsibility initiatives is not new for Wal-Mart. The company’s efforts have met with raised eyebrows in the past. There was its environmental sustainability program. Its healthy foods initiative. A women’s economic empowerment program that would increase female suppliers and sourcing from women-owned businesses. And so on.

I think Wal-Mart should be commended for hiring veterans. Even if many of the jobs it’s providing them are not exactly high-wage careers (the company said in a press release that many of the jobs will be in its stores), unemployment for veterans is high enough that it certainly can’t hurt. If the company had said it planned to put all these new veterans into management training positions, or into jobs that would immediately translate their logistics, equipment and technology skills into specialty jobs at Wal-Mart, it would be even better. But in today’s slow-moving economy, hiring is hiring.

Still, there is a way for Wal-Mart’s leaders to counter any skepticism the company does receive. It’s called remaining accountable. Issue a report each year that tells us how many veterans have been hired, and into what kind of positions. Let us know how many of them are stuck in part-time jobs and how many of them receive health benefits. And then, five years out, tell us how many veterans have stayed with the company, and how often they’ve been promoted into career-worthy jobs that the service members who’ve fought in our wars would be proud to hold.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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