Credit: OUR Walmart

At Thanksgiving, many stores hold canned food drives to collect for customers in need. But at a Wal-Mart in Canton, Ohio, the employees are the ones receiving charity.

A photo making the rounds online shows several plastic tubs in an Ohio store with a sign that reads "Please donate food items here so Associates in Need can enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner." The image, shared by the union-backed group OUR Walmart, is sparking criticism of Wal-Mart for paying its workers too little. Especially given the increasing number of protests by low-wage workers and a bill in Congress attempting raise the federal minimum wage, this is the sort of viral attention that probably doesn't make Wal-Mart feel so jolly right about now.

Wal-Mart spokesperson Kory Lundberg told that the store's employees are upset their actions are "being twisted and misinterpreted" and that the food drive was for employees who have a "special, critical, unforeseen need," such as their home burned down or their spouse lost a job. As Lundberg told The Cleveland Plain-Dealer: "This is part of the company's culture to rally around associates and take care of them when they face extreme hardships."

In a phone call with me, Wal-Mart spokesperson Brooke Buchanan echoed these sentiments, adding that the Ohio store's food drive is just "one example that's been completely mischaracterized and taken out of context" of a program that allows any of its local stores or employees to "come together to help their fellow associates in need." The company also has a program called the Associates Critical Need Trust that allows employees to donate money to help colleagues in the aftermath of catastrophes.

Certainly, giving to colleagues in need is commendable. Yet the photo is an example of how a company's good intentions can all too easily take on a far different sheen. It was only a few months ago that McDonald's came under fire for offering personal finance advice to employees that seemed to suggest they would need a second job to make ends meet. Coming on the heels of that brouhaha, the Wal-Mart photo starts to look less like a gesture of help and more like yet another example of a big corporation expecting others to pick up the slack for its low pay. If there were news of a similar food drive at a Costco, say--which is known for offering above-average pay and benefits--it probably wouldn't register a blip of attention. Context counts, and people will see what they want to see.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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