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Some at Safeway Decry Smile Policy

From Associated Press

A dozen Safeway Inc. employees have filed grievances over the supermarket chain’s smile-and-make-eye-contact rule, complaining that they are being propositioned by shoppers who mistake company-required friendliness for flirting.

Richelle Roberts, a produce clerk, said she is hit on every day by men who think she is coming on to them. Another produce worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she has hidden in a back room to avoid customers who have harassed her, propositioned her and followed her to her car.

“Let me decide who I am going to say hello to with a big smile,” Roberts said.

Safeway spokeswoman Debra Lambert acknowledged that “sometimes customers get out of line,” but added, “We don’t see it as a direct result of our initiative.”

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Under Safeway’s “Superior Service” policy, employees are expected to anticipate customers’ needs, take them to items they cannot find, make selling suggestions, thank them by name if they pay by check or credit card and offer to carry out their groceries.

Safeway, which is based in Pleasanton and is North America’s second-largest supermarket chain with 1,378 stores in the U.S. and Canada, began phasing in the policy five years ago.

But it was not until January that it began enforcing it by using undercover shoppers and warning employees that negative evaluations can lead to remedial training, disciplinary letters and termination.

A group of 12 women aired their grievances to Safeway executives in August, and a male who said he’d been bothered by a female customer joined the effort this week. The workers’ union also filed charges in May with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that the “superior service” policy was illegally imposed.

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“They’ve got battalions of MBAs who are coming up with these policies who don’t take into account the real-life implications,” said the workers’ lawyer, Matthew Ross.

The union wants workers, especially women, to have more freedom to choose not to make eye contact with a potentially threatening customer or to refuse to carry groceries out to a man’s car at night.

None of Safeway’s 150,000 employees has been fired for failing to be friendly enough, but 100 have been sent to a daylong class, a sort of Smile School.


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