Whole Foods Co-CEO Walter Robb was invited to speak at Lynn University this past Wednesday as part of the Dively Frontiers in Globalization lecture series. The annual series invites "outstanding individuals who have demonstrated exceptional leadership in world markets" to speak to the community about their work. Past lecturers have included Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, and Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey.
But just as Robb started to address the audience with "I appreciate the warm welcome," a woman in the audience interrupted the talk with a question about Whole Foods worker Rhiannon Broschat.
According to the Palm Beach Post, the woman was removed from the audience, with Robb saying this was not the place to discuss the issue, adding that the public didn't have all the facts because it was a personnel matter and therefore confidential.
Broschat received national attention when she was fired by a Chicago Whole Foods Market "after choosing to stay home with her 'special needs' child instead of going to work during the bitter cold on January 28," according to the Chicago Sun Times.
Broschat was quoted as saying, "With me having a son, there should be a policy instilled where working single mothers need a little bit of leniency and understanding, and I feel that just didn't happen to me."
A spokeswoman for Whole Foods in Chicago said the company doesn't discuss specific current or former employees but reiterated the company policy, which allows "up to five unexcused absences or 'points,' in a six-month period," adding, "team members approaching their limit of unexcused absences receive warnings and reminders, and those who exceed their limit are separated."
So far, an online petition demanding "the reinstatement of Rhiannon Broschat and that Whole Foods honor their existing leave policy" has generated more than 65,000 signatures, with protesters delivering boxes of signatures to Whole Foods headquarters in Austin and Chicago while holding signs reading "Kids Come First."
Whole Foods Market, by the way, has made the Forbes 100 Best Companies to Work For list for the 17th consecutive year, placing in the top since the ranking's inception in 1998. Forbes moved the chain up to 44 in the ranks (from 77 last year), citing the company's policy that "team members are permitted to explore hundreds of promotional opportunities and new jobs that open every year."
Was Broschat's termination unfair? Since employee records are confidential, we'll never know if there were other underlying issues or if there was an abuse of the system by the young mother unless she files a lawsuit and personnel records are subpoenaed. But there does come a point when even the most granola, kumbaya company still has to open its doors to do business. And that's when corporate rules get enforced. Because giving exception to one young mother may be the nice thing to do, but it sets a precedent for other parents and caregivers to ask for the same consideration. It's a slippery slope for employers.
Walter Robb, by the way, continued his talk at Lynn, saying that business can be the "greatest change agent" in society, while sipping his coconut water and talking about his company's $14 million investment into a Detroit Whole Foods Market. Sometimes the village takes individuals to build and maintain it and not the other way around.