Warning Signs Of A Poor Retail Culture

Warning Signs Of A Poor Retail Culture

When we are active [or even passive] job seekers, we conduct a lot of research on retailers and identify organizations we would be really thrilled and proud to work for/with and those that we wouldn’t consider in a million years.

As I mentioned in a previous post, “20 years ago, it was absolutely possible for organizations to create an image that was manufactured by the marketing departments, but now…everyone has a say [and super fast, too]. Retailers are no longer what they say they are but what others say they are.” This has become so absolutely true. People gladly share their experiences and stories about the retail brands they are familiar with either through employment or even simply interviewing. C-level executives are either are failing to acknowledge or simply don’t realize that their organizations have loud and colorful brands [good or bad] in the talent marketplace that people LOVE to share.

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There is a definite expectation of engagement and excitement during this process as an active job seeker and I have identified some really telling signs of potential culture fit between the organization and my professional value. However, as a passionate learner of new ways to work I came across this piece of advice for those of us seeking a new opportunity with an aligned fit – Liz Ryan, CEO and Founder of Human Workplace, offers an excellent suggestion, “When you are interviewing with a company, ask them for a copy of the employee handbook before you get the job offer! An employee handbook is a window to the corporate soul. Reading the employee handbook will give you enormous clues to the company’s culture. If they won’t give you a handbook, run away then and there!

Warning Signs of A Concerning Culture

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  • Communication With You Is Unprofessional: Your treatment during the hiring process is a clue as to how you’ll be treated as an employee. Once you’ve started a dialogue with a recruiter or hiring manager, you should expect to be treated with courtesy and respect. For example, you should expect to meet with the leaders you were told you were going to meet. If they are then unavailable – beware. When the hiring manager invites you to reach out with any questions, you should expect a response. If that isn’t the case – if emails or phone calls consistently go unreturned, or if interviews are canceled at the last minute without apology — you may want to take your value, enthusiasm, and experience elsewhere.
  • The Company Has a “No References Policy”: This is a warning sign. As retailers we are passionate about building relationships and we continue to maintain relationships, frequently, after we stop working together. This is an important policy to ask about during your interview – especially if it is not covered in the handbook. Even if your former boss wanted to give you a great reference, they  wouldn’t be allowed to. Any inquiry for work verification must be sent to HR, and all they’d be allowed to do is to verify your dates of employment and your job titles. This is an insult to the employee who delivered phenomenal results and was a highly-productive employee, and deserves a good and personalized reference.
  • The Workplace Seems Generally Unhappy: I distinctly remember walking around a large office recently and no one spoke to each other, no one made eye contact, and no one smiled. It was very telling about the reality of the work culture. The attitudes and interactions of the workers there as well as the overall environment seemed bland and uninspired – including employee common areas. If a visit to the office is depressing, wishy-washy, and/or concerning – how happy could you possibly be stuck there for work several hours a day with people who are miserable?
  • Mandated Hours: This is applicable to office or field leadership as opposed to store teams and store leadership where they must adhere to a specific schedule and be available for peak traffic and to maximize sales but, some retail organizations specify, for example, that junior level employees should expect to work 48 hours per week, mid-level employees should expect to work 50+ hours per week and senior leadership should plan on working 55+. This indicates that the organization is pathologically stuck in the past. Smart retail brands understand that what’s important is that the work gets done, well – not how many hours per week people work. Excessive hours is an antiquated notion of company loyalty and job commitment. There are measures for quantity and quality of work that far better measure performance, productivity, and commitment and great organizations recognize that and trust their employees.
  • There Is No Conversation Around Company Mission Statement Or Values: These things are the guiding principals of the business. These are the pillars for the goals and objectives of the business. Employees need to understand the importance of the business and the future growth and the part they will play as the organization strives for excellence. If this topic isn’t covered in any way – it is probably because the culture is uncertain of their direction and their future positioning. Cultures that fail to reference and remind the team of mission and values consistently are usually masters of chaos and reaction over action.
  • Annual Performance Management Program: This is another “old-school” program that cements a retailer as desperately out-of-touch. This process turns a job into a series of tasks, goals, and minutiae that you’ll be measured on daily, weekly and monthly basis. Retail leadership isn’t easily measured by tiny milestones. Great jobs are whole and you measure contribution and results based on activity, growth, team performance, and innovation. Forward-thinking retail organization understand the value of frequent, in-the-moment feedback and guidance consistently. Supporting employee growth – innovative retail organizations have an effective succession planning process – coupled with a career path planning and dialog with each individual employee based on overall performance. This allows for learning, development, recognition, and conversation around opportunity areas and a plan to close skill gaps and support the growth of all employees.
  • Questionable Interview Process: If people you communicate and meet with during the process return your calls and email messages, treat you kindly, provide you with requested information, and generally seem to value your time and talents, that’s a great start. If they leave you waiting for weeks between each contact, expect you to behave as a supplicant – they are extremely important executives and you are a merely a subordinate, don’t walk – run! No potential employer will ever love you more than they do at the point where they are trying to hire you. If the signals you get during the interview process are concerning or give you pause, don’t expect things to get better once you have the job.

Warning Signs Of A Potentially Bad Boss

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  • They Get Straight To The Point: When you are involved in an interview, there’s a usual process that includes: greeting, introducing oneself, setting the context of the interview, and making the interviewee comfortable through conversation. This is just basic etiquette. If the interviewer just sits down and begins the questioning process, it’s a red flag. This boss is only concerned about work and not the person performing the work. This type of personality will not spend time guiding or providing fair and balanced feedback because they have no people skills. It doesn’t get better so, pay attention to and trust your intuition.
  • They Are Distracted: Checking their phone during the interview, making or receiving calls, and stepping out to have conversations with others, regardless of how brief they are, are all signs that this person will not have time for you. If they cannot take time to assess and engage a future team member, then they certainly won’t care how engaged or involved they are when they are hired. You will hear “well they signed up for this” from this type of person.
  • They Didn’t Bother To Review Your Resume: Assumably, you are interviewing for a role that is critical to a team and to the organization, so if the hiring manager didn’t invest the time to review your resume prior to the interview it shows their level of commitment and engagement to their team and to the open role. They are unlikely to care about the person who is ultimately in that role – as far as happiness, growth, and guidance.
  • They Cannot Articulate A Long-Term Vision For Their Team: They are unable to clearly articulate the goals and objectives of the business and how they support their team to get there. They don’t discuss or are unable to explain the “critical success factors” of top performers inside the organization. These factors show what it really takes to be successful amid the circus of chaos, change, and day-to-day expectations in the retail industry and if the hiring manager can’t share those – they probably are clueless about lots of areas of the business.
  • They Don’t Bother To Show Up: I actually just recently experienced this – I met with an organization that reached out to me for my dream role in retail. The person I would be working directly with was unable to make it to the interview as they didn’t want to drive all the way back to the office [they were in the field earlier in the day]. When they reached out again a couple weeks later to to have me drive to meet this person, I declined. This is the type of environment where it would be challenging to establish a partnership and connect with people needed to sign off on initiatives – they would, likely, avoid dialogs and important topics would not be met with a sense of urgency – making it difficult to affect change and improvement.
  • They Speak Poorly About Their Current Staff: If they are willing to speak poorly about their team without recognizing that their team is a culmination of their leadership – it is a huge red flag. Take time to ask what the company’s challenges and obstacles may be and what their causes might be. If the answers to these questions consist of blaming others in the organization, especially those on his or her team, the person lacks integrity and that is a difficult professional blemish to look past.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail. Published writer. Frequent Podcast Guest. Speaker. Twenty year [oy vey!] retailer. I am passionate about leadership development and workplace culture. 646 246 1380 | beth@excellencein-retail.com [No Sales Contact, please} But it you want to call just to say hello or have a question - that's awesome!

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2 thoughts on “Warning Signs Of A Poor Retail Culture

  1. One item you forgot was… we are consumers of products too. At times human resources professionals forget they to represent the company and must treat interview candidates as possible guests or consumers of their products too. Would we want to send away a candidate that wasn’t hired speaking poorly of a company that treated them in an unprofessional manner.

    1. Hi Terry – This topic, specifically, was written from the perspective of a job seeker…at times we are so in need of a role that we overlook or forgive a lot of red flags that tell us (the candidate) the organization we are speaking with isn’t a great place to commit to, after all – why would we want to work somewhere that was potentially miserable?

      I agree it’s a huge piece of the candidate experience which is why I have covered it in how to create a great candidate experience [from a retail organizations perspective]and have even challenged talent acquisition and HR to ensure that even when candidates aren’t hired that they are likely to give their experience an “A” rating! Thanks for the feedback and feel free to check out my posts on that topic like this one: http://cottoncandyfshn.com/recruiting-for-cultural-fit-in-retail/. Enjoy your weekend!

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