A Former Target Team Leader Explains Hiring, Firing, and Staying Union-Free

Last year, we covered the (failed) battle to unionize Target workers, and brought you testimonials from many current and former employees about what life is like inside one of America's biggest retailers. Today—as Target enjoys strong sales gains—we bring you one more.

Our correspondent is a former Target employee who worked as a salaried "executive" (manager, essentially, or "team leader") at a distribution center. (He left the company in 2010.) We bring you these excerpts of his story simply because it's interesting to hear how these things work, and you'll never get any of this from a Target spokesperson. Take it for what it is.

On controlling employees and staying union-free:

I can say as a salary employee as a team leader in a distribution center, we did have to watch videos the same as the team leaders at the stores. They maintened a system of negative feedback on all of the hourly employees, whether or not they were a top performer, which could later be used as a paper trail for firing somebody in case they talked about a union. We were told if we caught somebody talking about a union we had "phrases to engage", I believe 9 phrases in total, that we could use when if we heard somebody talking about a union. We weren't allowed to ask certain questions but these phrases were a legal way for us to extract information. We were told to never write down this information and only say it directly to the HR manager. They would then be able to fire that individual and all of the individuals they associated with. They have a database full of negative comments about each employee so they could come up with some other reason to fire them...

Every few weeks or monthly the executives on each shift would meet and then put pictures of their bottom performers on the overhead for the rest of the managers to see what these people looked like. Then it was expected you look for them and try to write them up.

More on the script for dealing with union sympathizers:

[The phrases we were supposed to use] were all generic probing statements. I believe one of them was "Oh that is interesting" and "Tell me more" or something like that. They were really corny and people made a joke out of them. There were always a small handful of people who after the training would joke about all this stuff made them think a union might be a good idea and that could lead to serious discipline.

I do remember when the topics of unions came up one thing we were supposed to remind the hourly employees was that if they joined a union "Things could get better, but they could stay the same, and they definetly could get worse" and emphasize that "Just because you join a union, nothing is guarenteed and it might become a lot worse". We were supposed to talk about how if they join a union that essentially they would have no control over anything anymore and that their union leaders would essentially have a bunch of closed door negotiations and none of them would have a voice anymore and they would be forced to do whatever the union leaders wanted. It was their duty to report other co-workers if they heard about a union because basically they told them that a union could form around them and it wouldn't matter what they wanted so before that happened they needed to let somebody know. Almost the same way the see something say something thing goes for the TSA.

Screening job applications for union sympathizers:

We also had training on how to read job applications. They gave us words to look out for which may indicate the employee was in a union at a previous jobs. Those applicants were not to be hired. The official training paperwork didn't say this, but verbally they did...As far as job applications go, I do specifically remember they said if we see words like shop steward, steward, local, brotherhood.

So what they did was show example job applications and then we were supposed to read it and then they would you hire them? We would say yes or no and then they would say ok and then they would say well this person we hired and then here is what happened. We did about 10 or so. Basically it showed that the union people were terrible all until the very end. The last one was full of union stuff and then they said we hired them and they were great so that just goes to show you can never know for sure. I'm sure legally they had to do that last example...

Essentially if you were an hourly employee and you said the word union around any of the leadership, be prepared to lose your job and probably everybody you are friends with at work will as well.

The overall Target philosophy:

Despite everything I had said, I actually think Target is a well ran company because of the fact that everything is so standard and dictated, that it doesn't take anybody with any training to do most of the jobs. The systems are setup so they don't need to think. You look to see who showed up that day, look at the planning and then the system will tell you where to staff who and what to do when. They have "planograms" which dictate exactly where all files are to be kept and in what drawer in an office. The offices for each role are setup to be exact. There is so much turnover so it has to be that way. When an HR lady quits, they can send another one in and everything is where it is supposed to be and they can just keep going. Some companies have a people philosophy where they say we are all adults and we should be expected to be able to do our jobs. Target is the antithesis of that where they train the managers to believe that nobody can do their job until you tell them what they need to do and stay on top of them because nobody should be trusted to handle themselves.

If you're a Target employee or manager who wants to share your story, you can email me.

[Photo: AP]