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Denim is OK. Why Wal-Mart wants to improve employee satisfaction (+video)

The retail giant is increasing flexibility in its employee dress code as part of a greater effort to improve employee satisfaction. What's behind Wal-Mart's drive to increase the happiness of its workers?  

Wal-Mart employees will soon be able to wear denim to work, the corporation announced Wednesday at an employee rally in Bentonville, Ark. The new dress code flexibility is part of a larger effort to improve worker comfort and happiness, as warmer temperatures inside stores and a more varied music diet will also soon be implemented. 

But Wal-Mart employee Salomon Fuentes, an overnight maintenance associate from Duarte, Calif., told The Guardian that the new changes fail to address the real concerns of workers.

“My fellow associates and I are more worried about being able to afford clothes at all rather than worrying about what we wear,” Fuentes said.

The retail giant isn't just switching up its dress codes and music playlists, however. These relatively minor changes are arriving in the wake of a string of wage increase announcements. Most recently, on Monday, Wal-Mart announced that it would raise the starting wage for more than 100,000 department managers and specialty workers. 

The new improvements are due in large part to increased communication between the company’s leadership and its in-store employees, said Wal-Mart  spokesman Kory Lundberg. This communication comes in the form of weekly store visits, during which company leaders speak candidly with workers about their experiences. The corporation has also begun conducting “listening sessions,” led by COO Judith McKenna, in which employees give feedback on areas in which they believe the store could improve.

“If we have folks that are happier to come to work, they’re going to take better care of customers,” Lundberg explained.

Dr. Nelson Lichtenstein, Director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California Santa Barbara, said that Wal-Mart's reputation for employee dissatisfaction is mostly due to the company's unwillingness to spend more than the minimum on labor costs.

"They try to save money in every way they can," he explained. "The history of Wal-Mart in recent years has been efforts to raise profitability by slashing labor costs. Labor costs are a very high proportion of all the costs they have. You can probably save 5 million dollars a year by lowering the temperatures." 

According to Lichtenstein, the corporation could be trying to improve its poor reputation in an attempt to expand their stores into locations that have previously fought to keep them out.

“They’re extremely sensitive on [the topic of their poor working conditions],” Lichtenstein said. “And the reason is that they’ve failed to put stores in New York City, D.C., San Francisco, etc., because of the opposition. So this is one attempt to get around it.”

These improvements in wages and working conditions could possibly be a sign of an impending crossroads for Wal-Mart, according to Lichtenstein. 

"If we continue to have wage stagnation, then Wal-Mart is either going to try to move upscale, and that would imply higher wages for workers," he explained. "Or they’ll be stuck with this current clientele, a hundred million people or more, who are struggling. And then Wal-Mart itself will not be able to raise wages, and it will start declining as a company. The people who benefit from a higher minimum wage are not just its employees, but also those who shop there. Wal-Mart itself has sort of recognized this dilemma." 

According to Lundberg, it's probable that Wal-Mart will continue to make improvements as the company plans to maintain regular communication between leadership and store associates. 

Regardless of what the future holds for Wal-Mart, Lichtenstein says one thing is certain: 

“Whatever Wal-Mart does will have a huge ripple effect and everyone else will copy it. I assert that with my hand on a Bible. It’s already happening.” 

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