Communication, Culture, Organizational Model and Style: A Case Study of Walmart


The goal of this paper is to explore and explain the organizational culture – the foundational assumptions, shared values and system of beliefs – that guide the behavior of the employees of Walmart and govern the way they see themselves within the organization, relate to one another, and interact with their customers and the outside world. With an understanding of Walmart’s organizational culture, this paper also seeks to highlight the various types or styles of communication that are utilized within this organization, the organizational structure that influences how decisions are made through its hierarchy and determines the distribution of functions or roles within the organization, and finally the different coalitions or alliances that have emerged as a result of the communication styles and power dynamics within and outside Walmart. 

Organizational Culture

Walmart’s organizational culture is believed to have evolved from the fundamental assumption that “a retailer could help people save money and live better” (see Working at Walmart This idea of improving the living conditions of the local population by providing a unique customer service experience that is tailored towards offering customers a variety of goods and services that are both affordable and appealing, leading to the creation of a pathway for the revitalization of economies through manufacturing, job employment opportunities and retailing, constitute the bedrock on which the primary motivation of Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, is anchored. Sam Walton, through his leadership and worldview – his personal experiences of the world – initiated the Walmart corporate culture, and was “influential in shaping the behavior and values of others {…}, creating the conditions for new culture formation” (Schein, 2010, p. 3). 

From this perspective, it becomes logical and plausible to argue that there is a connection between leadership and culture within this organizational setting. “What we end up calling a culture in such systems,” according to Schein (2010), “is usually the result of the embedding of what a founder or leader has imposed on a group that has worked out. In this sense, culture is ultimately created, embedded, evolved, and ultimately manipulated by leaders” (p. 3) to influence leadership and employee performance within the organization. The organizational culture at Walmart, just as it is in any other corporate organization with similar history and basic assumptions, could be understood in light of Schein’s (2010) definition of the culture of a group as encompassing “a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems” (p. 18).

An analysis of available archival information at Walmart suggests that new Walmart executives and associates are first of all immersed into the life stream, the fundamental assumption that “a retailer could help people save money and live better.” This foundational belief guides and informs their actions, behaviors, relationships, and attitudes within and outside the organization. However, holding such assumption alone does not in itself constitute a corporate culture. Something else is needed – that is, how to bring idealistic assumptions to fruition or reality. The organizational culture at Walmart could therefore be understood from a “praxis” perspective which underscores an accepted practice. This explanation is best captured by Walmart’s definition of culture: “Our culture is how we work together to fulfill that purpose [purpose here refers to helping people save money and live better].” (See Working at Walmart To realize its dream in a collaboratively engaging manner, Walmart adopts four core values that, when put together, form what could be described as the organizational work culture at Walmart. These values are: “service to customers, respect for the individual, striving for excellence, and acting with integrity” (See Working at Walmart

In the table below, effort is made to summarize the organizational work culture at Walmart, the theory of change underlying each of the component parts of the Walmart’s organizational culture, as well as the descriptions or the constituting elements of each of the organizational culture.

Work Culture at Walmart Service to Customers Respect for the Individual Striving for Excellence Acting with Integrity
Theory of Change (If…, then) If Walmart was founded because of customers, then Walmart employees – executives and associates – should strive daily to satisfy customers. If Walmart wants to get its employees to work together to fulfill its purpose: “help people save money and live better,” then Walmart’s employees, customers and community members ought to be respected. If Walmart seeks to be successful, then Walmart should always improve its business model and continuously develop the skills of its employees. If Walmart wants to maintain the reputation and trust ascribed to its business model, then the actions of Walmart employees should be guided by the principles of integrity.
Descriptions/ Constituting Elements 1 Serve customers by making them first priority. Value and recognize the contributions of every associate. Innovate by trying new ways of doing things and improving every day. Be honest by telling the truth and keeping our word.
Descriptions/ Constituting Elements 2 Support associates so they can best serve customers. Own what we do with a sense of urgency, and empower each other to do the same. Model a positive example as we pursue high expectations. Be fair and open when dealing with associates, suppliers and other stakeholders.
Descriptions/ Constituting Elements 3 Give to the local community in ways that connect to customers. Communicate by listening to all associates and sharing ideas and information. Work as a team by helping each other and asking for help. Be objective by making decisions based solely on Walmart's interests while operating in compliance with all laws and our policies.

The analysis of the data collected from this ethnographic study of Walmart-Employees (or associates) conflict, using three main techniques: observation, interviewing, and archival research, revealed that there is a discrepancy or dichotomy between what Walmart upholds as its organizational work culture (the above mentioned fundamental beliefs and core values) and how Walmart’s employees or associates are actually being treated by Walmart’s chain of command and management. This discrepancy between beliefs and actions has generated a lot of criticisms from various interest groups against Walmart, caused different communication styles to emerge within the organization, created a vacuum for alliance building and coalitions at different levels, and has caused internal strain or polarization leading to a high number of lawsuits and penalties against Walmart by its own associates.

While the subsequent sections of this paper highlight these communication styles, discuss the chain of command or organizational structure responsible for policymaking and its implementation, and the types of coalitions or alliances that have developed within and outside Walmart, it is important to now outline where exactly the discrepancies are located and the particular actions that seem to go against the traditional core values or beliefs of Walmart.

The data analysis revealed that the main problem underscoring the continuous escalation of the Walmart-Employees conflict has to do with Walmart’s failure to address the major concerns of its associates – their perceptions that some of Walmart’s actions toward them are contrary to their organizational core values: service to customers, respect for the individual, striving for excellence, and acting with integrity.

Service to Customers: In the course of this research, it was found that there is a discrepancy between Walmart’s claim that it is supporting associates so they can best serve customers and the associates’ perception of Walmart’s treatment toward them, and how this treatment has affected their relationship with customers, their socio-economic status, and their psychological well-being. It was also discovered that the claim Walmart holds about giving to the local community in ways that connect to customers is to some degree in contradiction with the perception of some community members toward Walmart’s contribution to community development.

Respect for the Individual: The analysis of the data collected showed that Walmart’s affirmation that its management values and recognizes the contributions of every associate is not in alignment with what some of the associates experience in their interactions with management. The question that emerged during the research was: Isn’t it one thing to recognize one’s contributions, and another thing to value those contributions? Walmart’s associates believe that their hard work and efforts to help Walmart achieve its organizational goals are acknowledged by the management because of the enormous profits Walmart is accumulating and its continuous expansion around the world. However, their contributions to the discussion on how to improve their well-being as employees are not being recognized and valued. From this perspective, they have decided to openly resist any agenda that will make them become a means to an end in lieu of becoming an end in themselves. Walmart’s associates also argue that although Walmart believes that its management – top-level and middle-level leaders – communicates by listening to all associates and sharing ideas and information, in reality, however, the attitudes and behaviors of management regarding the interests and ideas of the associates on how to improve their well-being as employees are against the very core values and beliefs Walmart claims to uphold.

Striving for Excellence: Another domain where Walmart’s associates perceive discrepancies are in the areas of innovation and team work. The findings revealed that the fundamental belief or value that obliges both management and associates to innovate by trying new ways of doing things and improving every day is implemented and enforced to the extent to which it serves the interests of Walmart’s leadership and management, while denigrating the interests, and disregarding the voices, of the associates. The various grievances underlying the associates’ claims and struggle are outlined in the table below. However, one of the main questions that arose during the data collection and analysis was: if Walmart upholds a fundamental value to innovate by trying new ways of doing things and improving every day, why is its leadership against the employees’ request for unionization of Walmart’s associates? There is also a perceived discrepancy between the core value of working as a team by helping each other and asking for help and the responses and reactions of Walmart’s leadership and management regarding the stated needs and interests of the associates.

Acting with Integrity: There is also a growing concern about the existing dichotomy between the obligation to act with integrity – that is, to be honest by telling the truth, to be fair and open when dealing with associates, suppliers and other stakeholders, or to be objective by making decisions based solely on Walmart’s interests while operating in compliance with all laws and policies, and the perceived unfair, unjust and illegal treatment of some associates by Walmart’s management as well as the perceived discriminatory practices at Walmart, some of which have ended in lawsuits and penalties against the company. The question that emerged during this study was: how would Walmart justify that its leadership and management are acting with integrity and based on the law when some associates and new recruits claim they have been discriminated against or when the management has been accused of indulging in unlawful practices against the associates – practices ranging from unanticipated closure of stores to the reduction of work hours and low wages for certain associates, and then to the threats of firing outspoken associates.

The table below shows in detail the perceived discrepancies (as expressed by the Associates) between Walmart’s cultural norms and the actual practices, behaviors and attitudes of its leadership and management toward the associates. Also, the table highlights the human needs of both Walmart Associates and the management. Exploring the understanding of the Walmart-Employees conflict beyond the initial position and “interest identification to a deeper level, the human needs level,” the human needs model utilized in the table below will help both the associates and management to identify “shared human needs” (Katz, Lawyer, and Sweedler, 2011, p. 109). This table is important in the sense that it serves as a prerequisite to understanding the communication types or styles that have emerged within and outside Walmart.

Associates’ Perceived Discrepancies Human Needs (Based on the Human Needs Model)
Between Walmart’s Cultural Norms and Actual Practices of its Leadership and Management Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart, an organization of Walmart Associates, by Walmart Associates, for Walmart Associates.)
Not treated with the respect they deserve. Position: Unionization of Walmart Associates
Labor rights and standards violated. Physiological Needs (Interests)
Do not have a voice at the stores. 1) Walmart should pay at least $15 per hour and expand the percentage of full-time workers. 2) Walmart should make scheduling more predictable and dependable. 3) Walmart should provide wages and benefits that ensure that no associates will rely on government assistance to provide for their families.
Concerns about their work are ignored. Safety / Security (Interests)
Agitation or demand for freedom of association / unionization is frequently met with punishment from management. 1) Walmart should allow Associates to freely join OUR Walmart without fear of punishment - store closures, layoffs, or loss of benefits. 2) Walmart should help associates have access to affordable healthcare, and expand health care coverage and to continue to work to expand coverage when health reform goes into effect, rather than taking advantage of loopholes in the law to deny coverage. 3) Walmart should honor the associates’ fundamental right to freedom of speech so that associates can speak out without fear of retaliation.
Use of Walmart’s Open Door does not result in conflict resolution of issues and confidentiality is not respected. 4) Walmart should hire additional staff, based on the anticipated size of the crowds during holiday sales events such as “Black Friday”. 5) Walmart should train: security or crowd management personnel on site; workers on security measures; and workers on emergency procedures. 6) Walmart should prepare an emergency plan, and make sure that both workers and local emergency responders know about it.
Walmart’s claim that full-time Associates’ hourly pay averages more than $15 per hour is in contradiction with the less than $10 per hour paid to many associates. Belongingness / We / Team Spirit(Interests)
Reduction of work hours for part-time associates makes it difficult to support their families. 1) Walmart should celebrate our initiatives, and listen to our concerns. 2) Walmart should adopt affirmative policies that secure full access to opportunity and equal treatment to all Associates regardless of gender identity, race, disability, sexual orientation, or age.
Irregular and inflexible schedules given to associates make it difficult to care for their families. 3) Walmart should follow Mr. Sam’s rule: “Share your profits with all your Associates, and treat them as partners.” 4) Walmart should end discrimination based on age, sex, race or belief system.
Inability to access Walmart’s health care because it is too expensive or because of lack of hours to qualify. Self-Esteem / Respect(Interests)
Associates are faced with retaliation when speaking out about issues at work. 1) Walmart should honor the hard work and humanity of Associates. 2) Walmart should treat us with respect and dignity.
Equal treatment is denied to many associates. 3) We want justice and fairness. 4) We want to feel we are responsible people who are able to afford the basic necessities for our family.
Relying on government assistance to meet basic needs while still working for Walmart is not good. Business Growth / Profit / Self-Actualization(Interests)
Store always understaffed and employees constantly overworked. 1) Walmart should ensure managers are properly trained on how to evenly and equitably enforce Walmart’s written policies at all times and to provide all Associates with a policy manual. 2) We want to succeed in our careers, and we want our company to succeed in business, and our customers to receive great service and value, and Walmart and Associates to share all of these goals.
Standing up for unionization and participating in strikes are met with threats of store closures, layoffs, or loss of benefits. 3) We want to grow and have opportunities, fair wage increase - raises for all associates at a minimum $15/hour. 4) We want to be given consistent, full time hours if we want them.
Associates and customers are at risk of injury or death during holiday sales events such as “Black Friday”. 5) We want Walmart to give more hours to part-time Associates. 6) We want Walmart to hire more employees in understaffed stores.
Allegations of sex discrimination (example: Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.). 7) We want Walmart to end wage and hour violations. 8) We want Walmart to end unfair coaching and terminations.
Wage and hour law violations, for example unpaid wages to associates. 9) Walmart should commit to adhering to labor rights and standards.

Types of Communication Utilized within the Organization

In order to respond to the above stated grievances and reinforce its goals, Walmart, for over a decade, has been experimenting with different styles of communication. The research findings on the various styles of communication employed by both Walmart management and Walmart Associates with respect to the unionization conflict revealed that:

  • Walmart leadership and management have utilized inconsistent tactics or styles at different times and levels and for various purposes to try to either ignore the unionization conflict, suppress or confront it, persuade interested associates and other stakeholders to give up their demands through coercion, or make some concessions with the intention of maintaining the status quo.
  • Walmart associates have also moved from one style of communication to another since the start of the unionization conflict. Although it appears that the main body of Walmart associates, Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) – a group that is championing the unionization cause, has, since its June 2011 official public rollout (See Worker Center Watch, 2014), adopted a clear, easily identifiable confrontational styles or patterns of communication, many other associates however are still employing yielding styles of communication because of the concerns or fear that confrontational approaches could lead to the termination of their jobs.

For a better understanding of both the communication styles of Walmart leadership/management and their associates, this study adopted a combination of the “Two-dimensional model of conflict” (Blake and Mouton, 1971, as cited in Katz et al., 2011, pp. 83-84) and the Rahim (2011) classification of conflict styles (as cited in Hocker and Wilmot, 2014, p. 146). These conflict styles are: avoiding, dominating (competing or controlling), obliging (accommodating), compromising, and integrating (collaborating). As will be explained below, both the Walmart management and the associates “change their styles/approaches in order to adapt to the demands of new situations” (Katz et al., 2011, p. 84). For each of these conflict styles, the corresponding stakeholder’s communication tactic is highlighted.

Communication (Conflict) Styles Description/Goal Walmart Leadership/Management Walmart Associates
Avoiding Leave-lose/win posture (Low goal and relationship orientations) Yes Yes
Accommodating (Obliging) Yield-lose/win (Low goal orientation and high relationship orientation) _____________________________ Yes (particularly some of the associates)
Compromising Mini-win/mini-lose (Negotiated goal and relationship orientations) Yes Yes
Dominating (Competing or Controlling) Win/lose (High goal orientation and low relationship orientation) Yes Yes
Integrating (Collaborating) Win/win (High goal and relationship orientations) No No


The data collected during the interviews and archival research revealed that at the beginning of the Walmart-Associates conflict over the unionization of the Walmart employees, Walmart leadership adopted a tactic of avoidance. The leadership and management of Walmart avoided engaging in direct discussions on the unionization issue with its associates as well as ignored their underlying interests and goals. According to Steve Adubato (2016), “Wal-Mart’s CEO Lee Scott (who served as the third chief executive officer of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., from January 2000 to January 2009) apparently felt that responding to the criticism would give it added validity” (para. 3). Walmart leadership’s response to the early stage of this conflict – their avoidance strategy – subscribes to the noncommittal attitude of denying the existence of the conflict. “By pretending that the conflict does not exist, the high-power party is freed from dealing with the low-power party” (Hocker and Wilmot, 2014, p. 151). This is evident in the alleged “refusal to address the concerns of Walmart associates” by the different levels of Walmart’s hierarchy, beginning from the retired Chairman of the Board of Directors of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Rob Walton, the oldest child of Sam and Helen Walton, to the members of the Board of Directors, and then to the executive management, to whom members of the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) and their allies claim they have repeatedly reached out individually and collectively to listen to their concerns (See Making Change at Walmart, The Walmart 1 Percent: History of outreach by Walmart associates and allies to Walmart, retrieved from One of the questions this research sought to investigate was: do the disadvantages of avoiding the expressed unionization goals of Walmart’s associates outweigh its advantages? The findings of this research revealed two important propositions. The one is that avoiding the concerns of the associates is in contradiction with Walmart’s organizational culture. The other is that by avoiding their expressed needs, interests and goals, Walmart associates feel the leadership and management do not care about their well-being, and do not value their contributions to the organization, which in turn set “the stage for a later explosion or backlash” (Hocker and Wilmot, 2014, p. 152) that has introduced friction in the management – associate relationship.

Dominating / Competing or Controlling:

Another style that emerged from the research on the Walmart-Associates conflict is the tactic of domination, competition and control. Since avoiding the associates’ concerns does not in any way eliminate the presence of the issues underlying the conflict, it was revealed in the research that many associates decided to come together, regroup, form in-store associations, and garner support and momentum from external interested groups/unions, while leveraging on superordinate laws/policies formulated to protect employee rights and seizing every opportunity and means to assert their claims and concerns. This competing move by the Walmart associates confirms the basic assumptions underlying the concept of the dominating style of communication. According to Hocker and Wilmot (2014): “a dominating, competitive, or ‘power over’ style is characterized by aggressive and uncooperative behavior – pursuing your own concerns at the expense of another. People with dominating styles attempt to gain power by direct confrontation, by trying to ‘win’ the argument without adjusting to the other’s goals and desires. […] The conflict is seen as a battleground, where winning is the goal, and concern for the other is of little or no importance” (p. 156).

A careful examination of the umbrella organization of the Walmart associates, Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), revealed that in their conflict with Walmart, Our Walmart is so fixed to, and focused on, its demands while trying to win the battle through various competing strategies and tactics. These tactics include but not limited to: “filing frivolous lawsuits, publishing slanted studies, issuing demand letters to employers, conducting boisterous and disruptive protests in stores and on the street, personally attacking board members and executives and leveling slanderous accusations in the media” (See Worker Center Watch, Our Walmart Tactics, Retrieved from It is believed that these communication styles constitute part of an encompassing, global campaign strategy that includes the use of civil disobedience (Eidelson, 2013; Carpenter, 2013), organizing and going on strikes (Carpenter, 2013; Resnikoff 2014; Jaffe 2015; Bode 2014), social media, dedicated websites, and other online platforms, designed to publicly persuade or coerce Walmart to yield to the demands of its associates.

The research data revealed that instead of yielding to Our Walmart’s demands and being intimidated by its public campaigns and other tactics, Walmart has employed different styles to communicate, persuade, and coerce its associates not to unionize. Agitation for freedom of association or unionization and participating in Our Walmart-led strikes are frequently met with punishment from Walmart management in the form of threats of, or actual, store closures, layoffs, reduction of work hours or loss of benefits. For example, “when the meat department of a Walmart store in Texas became the retailer’s only operation in the United States to unionize, back in 2000, Walmart announced plans two weeks later to use prepackaged meat and eliminate butchers at that store and 179 others” (Greenhouse, 2015, para. 1). Similarly, it is believed that the closing of the Walmart store in Jonquiere, Quebec in 2004 shortly after the store associates were unionized, and the move in April 2015 to close a store in Pico Rivera, California, along with four other stores, is part of a broader aggressive strategy to fight the unionization agenda of Walmart associates (Greenhouse, 2015; Masunaga, 2015).

Also, the official complaint of the National Labor Relations Board, Office of the General Counsel, against Walmart on January 15, 2014 confirms the dominating and controlling conflict style utilized by Walmart to deter associates from forming or joining a union. “During two national television news broadcasts and in statements to employees at Walmart stores in California and Texas, Walmart unlawfully threatened employees with reprisal if they engaged in strikes and protests. At stores in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Washington, Walmart unlawfully threatened, disciplined, and/or terminated employees for having engaged in legally protected strikes and protests. At stores in California, Florida, and Texas, Walmart unlawfully threatened, surveilled, disciplined, and/or terminated employees in anticipation of or in response to employees’ other protected concerted activities” (NLRB, Office of Public Affairs, 2015).

In addition to its aggressive move against any attempts to unionize its associates, Walmart mandated its Labor Relations Team to develop “A Manager’s Toolbox To Remaining Union Free,” a training kit that fiercely opposes and condemns unionization of the associates while providing convincing evidences and reasons why managers should say no to Our Walmart and encourage other associates to reject the idea of unionization. All managers are required to receive this training which empowers them to be Walmart’s “first line of defense against unionization” and provides them with the skills to be “constantly alert for efforts by a union to organize the associates” as well as to be constantly alert to any signs associates are interested in a union” (Walmart Labor Relations Team, 1997). When there were signs of union activities organized by Our Walmart or any other union, the managers were required to immediately report such signs and activities to the Labor Relations Hotline, also known as the Union Hotline (Walmart Labor Relations Team, 2014; Human Rights Watch, 2007). Similarly, new hires since 2009 are given an orientation to indoctrinate them into the anti-unionization culture and ideology of Walmart (Greenhouse, 2015), thereby deterring them from pursuing such goals that will leave them with regrettable consequences. So, new associates start off their work with feelings of fear of retaliation, should they associate themselves with pro-unionization elements.

After a reflection on the dominating styles of Walmart and the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), one important question emerged: what are the advantages and disadvantages of these tactics? Have these communication strategies served them well? The research finding on this style is in alignment with Hocker and Wilmot (2014)’s theoretical assumption on the dominating style of communication which holds that “it is useful if the external goal is more important than the relationship with the other person, such as in a short-term, nonrepeating relationship” (p. 157). But Walmart is bound in a long-term relationship with its associates, and so, “conflict waged competitively can encourage one party to go underground and use covert means to make the other pay. Domination tends to reduce all conflicts to two options – ‘either you are against me or with me,’ which limits one’s roles to ‘wining’ or ‘losing’” (Hocker and Wilmot, 2014, p. 157). Sadly, this is true of the current hostile relationship between Walmart and members of the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart).

Accommodating or Obliging:

Another important communication style that is being used in the Walmart-Associates conflict is accommodating or obliging. For Katz et al. (2011), accommodating means “giving in, appeasing, and avoiding conflict” (p. 83) either to maintain the relationship or because of the fear of the consequences or impact losing out in the conflict will have on the accommodator. Our research data analysis reveals that many Walmart associates prefer to yield to Walmart’s anti-unionization rules to joining and participating in the pro-unionization activities of OUR Walmart, not because of relationship building, but because of the fear of losing their jobs, which, of course, will have a devastating impact on them and their families. Many people have chosen the accommodating stance in history as seen in the mythology of exodus where some Israelites preferred to yield to Pharaoh’s ordinances and return to Egypt to avoid hunger and dying in the desert, and as was evident during slavery – some slaves wanted to remain under the yoke of their masters because of the fear of the unknown -, or as utilized by many people in everyday relationship, especially in marriages.

It is important to note that some of the associates truly and secretly subscribe to the expressed interests of Our Walmart – that Walmart should improve the well-being of, and respect, associates -, however, they are afraid of speaking out openly. As Hocker and Wilmot (2014) affirm, “one may […] yield to someone else […] grudgingly and bitterly, [and from a perspective of] angry, hostile compliance” (p. 163). This assertion is confirmed in some of the statements that Walmart’s associates made during interviews. “I’m here because of my children, otherwise, I would have left Walmart or joined Our Walmart to fight for our rights.” “As a part-time associate, if you complain or express your views about how you’re treated and disrespected, your hours will be reduced, and you may be the next in line to get fired. So, I prefer to keep quiet to keep my job.” Yielding or conceding to the anti-unionization rules of Walmart is a common practice for many associates. Barbara Gertz, an overnight Walmart stocker in Denver, is reported by Greenhouse (2015) to have said that: “People are scared to vote for a union because they’re scared their store will be closed” (Para. 2).

For this communication style, it was also important to know how advantageous accommodating could be for the Walmart-Associates conflict. The research finding reveals that the accommodating style of communication or obliging was utilized to “minimize losses” (Hocker and Wilmot, 2014, p. 163). For the associate-accommodators, yielding is a lesser evil when compared to joining Our Walmart which could lead to termination of employment. Although Walmart may be satisfied in the short-run when these associates are obedient, in the long-run, there may be some form of resentment and low enthusiasm toward their work which may have a significant impact on their overall work performance.


Our research also reveals that in addition to the avoiding and dominating styles of communication and conflict utilized by Walmart, the organization has made some compromising decisions aimed at improving the well-being of its associates, saving face, and rebuilding confidence and reputation in the public eye. These compromising gestures include:

  • improving its scheduling practices by offering some employees fixed schedules each week—many employees had complain[ed] that their work schedules change vastly week-to-week (Greenhouse, 2015);
  • agreeing to raise its base pay to $9 in 2015 and $10 in 2016 – a move that would mean raises for 500,000 workers (Greenhouse,, 2015);
  • improving its Open Door Policy by ensuring that “… any associate, at any time, at any level, in any location, may communicate verbally or in writing with any member of management up to the president, in confidence, without fear of retaliation…” (Walmart Labor Relations Team, 1997, p. 5);
  • initiating inclusive and trusting communication channel for both management and associates by redesigning an intranet and launching in September 2012 (Kass, 2012);
  • paying millions of compensations for accusations of discrimination, illegal termination of some members of Our Walmart, and other related violations of labor laws like wage law violations, inadequate health care, exploitation of workers, and the retailer’s anti-union stance (Work Place Fairness, 2016; Riper, 2005);
  • taking a lot of steps to increase employee diversity in the organization;
  • establishing the Global Ethics Office in Bentonville, Arkansas, that formulates and educates both the management and associates about Walmart’s code of ethical conduct, and also provides a confidential system / process for associates to report what “they feel might be a violation of ethical conduct, policy or law” (Global Ethics Office,

With respect to the gestures of compromise from the other side of the aisle, it is important to note that Our Walmart and its partner, United Food and Commercial Workers, have given up some of its aggressive and destructive strategies, partly as a sign of trade-offs for something in return on the part of Walmart, and mostly in order to comply with court orders (See appendix for the court injunctions). The most important and significant compromise that is worth highlighting in this final research report is the sudden decision made by Our Walmart to desist from negotiating “contracts on behalf of Walmart workers, but to focus instead on helping “members benefit from federal labor laws that protect workers from retaliation for engaging in collective discussion and action” (Steven Greenhouse, 2011). The commitment not to act as a legal union representing Walmart associates is reflected in the legal disclaimer that Our Walmart posted on its website and social media pages:  “UFCW and OUR Walmart have the purpose of helping Walmart employees as individuals or groups in their dealings with Walmart over labor rights and standards and their efforts to have Walmart publicly commit to adhere to labor rights and standards. UFCW and OUR Walmart have no intent to have Walmart recognize or bargain with UFCW or OUR Walmart as the representative of its employees” (Our Walmart, Legal Disclaimer: As a comprehensive set of trade-offs decisions, Our Walmart has agreed to desist from the following activities:

  • “entering onto or inside Walmart’s private property to engage in activities such as picketing, patrolling, parading, demonstrations, ‘flash mobs,’ handbilling, solicitation, and manager confrontations; or
  • entering onto or inside Walmart’s private property without permission or authorization from Walmart for any purpose other than shopping for and/or purchasing Walmart merchandise” (Worker Center Watch: Founding, Retrieved from; Court of Benton County, Arkansas Civil Division, 2013).

The different compromise gestures made by Walmart and Our Walmart with its allies are characteristic of the compromising style of communication or conflict. By making the above outlined compromises, both Walmart and Our Walmart “assume that a win / win solution is not possible and adopt a negotiating stance that involves a little bit of winning and a little bit of losing with respect to both the goals and the relationships of the involved parties, with persuasion and manipulation dominating the style” (Katz et al., 2011, p. 83). After reflecting on this compromising style of conflict, it was important to explore whether this style is more advantageous to the two main parties involved in this conflict than any other conflict style, for example, the integrating or collaborating style. The research finding revealed that the above compromises only served to ‘reinforce a power balance … used to achieve temporary or expedient settlements in time-pressured situations” (Hocker and Wilmot, 2014, pp. 162) since the other tactics – avoidance, domination, and accommodation – failed to put a pause to the conflict.

However, since compromising could be seen as a sign of loss, and given that Our Walmart would not want to easily give up on what they refer to as a human rights struggle, the conflict could now be described as gradually moving to the highest point on its ladder of escalation. And in addition, it appears that the parties are stuck in these conflict styles or have gotten “frozen into a conflict style rather than developing style flexibility” (Hocker and Wilmot, 2014, pp. 184-185). Another question that emerged from the interviews and archival research is: why are the parties doing the same thing over and over again since the manifestation of this conflict? Why are they frozen into holding their positions without any sign of flexibility? Why is Walmart not willing to give up its anti-unionization fight? And why is Our Walmart not willing to give up its aggressive campaign and fight against Walmart? The research findings revealed that the best answer to these questions lies in the differences between the concepts of power, rights and interests (Hocker and Wilmot, 2014, p. 108 – p. 110). It was found that the focus for this conflict has shifted from interests to rights and then to power; and the escalated nature of the Walmart-Our Walmart conflict confirms that “an overemphasis on power is symptomatic of a distressed system” (Hocker and Wilmot, 2014, p. 110).

Integrating or Collaborating:

What then should be done to reverse the wheel of this conflict escalation? Many people would be quick to argue that restoring the labor rights of Walmart associates through the formal legal system is necessary to resolving the dispute. Based on the findings of this research, I believe that the rights-based processes of dispute resolution are necessary since the conflict involves rights-based issues such as sex-discrimination, labor laws violation, and other related legal issues. However, because of the long-term relationship that normally exists between employers and their employees, the rights-based processes are not sufficient to resolving the underlying issues in the Walmart-Associates conflict. For this reason, it is suggested in this research to shift the emphasis from the power-and rights-based processes to interests-based processes of conflict resolution. Just as Hocker and Wilmot (2014) say, “when we solve a dispute based on interests, the goals and desires of the parties are the key elements … with rights and power playing smaller but still important roles” (p. 109).

But, has the interests-based communication style been utilized by any of the parties in this conflict? The data collected through interviews, archival studies and other research methods that constitute the foundation on which this final report is based revealed that Walmart and Our Walmart have not yet transitioned to an integrating or collaborating style of communication. Walmart and Our Walmart with its partners have not yet adopted a “win/win posture” that ensures that “both parties to the conflict achieve their personal goals [and act] not only on behalf of their self-interest but on behalf of the opposing party’s interests as well” (Katz et al., 2011, p. 83). Even though this research acknowledges the stated efforts made by Walmart by creating the Global Ethics office, a system that is aimed at providing a confidential and anonymous reporting process and helping associates to raise concerns and speak up about perceived or actual violations of ethical conducts and policies (Global Ethics Office,; and although the research finding is reminiscent of Walmart’s compromising stance on strengthening its Open Door policy, a system and a process that promote a working atmosphere which encourages each associate to express their thoughts and feelings to management without fear of retaliation (Walmart Labor Relations Team, 1997). It is the contention of this research that both the Global Ethics and the Open Door policy are not reflective of a co-authorship of a solution that addresses the underlying issues and concerns in the Walmart – Associates conflict.

Throughout this research, there was no available information about a time when Walmart and Our Walmart co-authored a solution through “mutual problem solving” (Hocker and Wilmot, 2014, p. 165). Therefore, a process or system through which Walmart and Our Walmart with its partners could collaboratively co-author a solution to their conflict – a joint solution that will meet the core interests and needs of both parties – should be the primary concern of any peace/conflict intervention in this organization, and it should be privileged and welcomed by the leadership and management of Walmart.

Organizational Structure

In order for an organization to function, it must have an organizational structure. An organization should be structured in such a manner to help serve the needs and purposes for which it was created. The same is true of Walmart’s organizational structure. With the aim of saving people money so they can live better, Walmart’s organizational structure could be described as being both hierarchical and functional (Jessica Lombardo, 2015).

Walmart’s hierarchical organizational structure is like a pyramid whereby each employee has a designated superior, except the President and CEO of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., a position that was held by Doug McMillon at the time of this research. The President and CEO, however, receives guidance and support from the Board of Directors. The research findings revealed the existence of vertical lines of command and authority (Jessica Lombardo, 2015) within Walmart’s organizational structure which allows for a top-down communication pattern. “Directives and mandates coming from the top levels of Walmart’s management are implemented through middle managers down to the rank-and-file employees in the Walmart stores” (Jessica Lombardo, 2015, para. 3). This means that Walmart associates are on the receiving end, being situated at the lowest power line of influence. What is the implication of this structural model for Walmart? It means that “if lower-power people are continually subjected to harsh treatment or lack of goal attainment, they are likely to produce some organized resistance to the higher-power people” (Hocker and Wilmot, 2014, p. 165). This statement accounts for the increasing struggle by Walmart’s associates to unionize. Unionizing, they believe, could be a way to increase and balance power.

Hierarchical Organizational Structure

(Jacob Morgan, 2015)

In addition to its hierarchical structure, Walmart also utilizes a functional model of organizational structure. This is a skill-based approach to management. As the word functional implies, employees with similar skills are grouped together in a functional unit to fulfil their specialized functions and report to their unit managers who also report to their superiors in the hierarchy. This is why Walmart designated the positions of President and CEO for each of the four divisions of its business: Walmart U.S., Walmart International, Sam’s Club, and Global eCommerce. Each of the President and CEOs of these business divisions is responsible for their respective functional units and regions, and they report back to Doug McMillon who was the President and CEO, WalMart Stores, Inc. at the time of this research and whose work was guided by the decisions of the Board of Directors, with input from the Shareholders.

Functional Model of Organizational Structure

(Perez-Montesa, 2012)

From this perspective, it becomes easy to understand how new policies, strategies and directives from the headquarters could be passed on to the managers at various levels to be implemented through the work of the hourly associates at the bottom-low power line of influence. The question that this research sought to answer was: how do Walmart associates perceive themselves in their relationship with their managers? What is their notion of power in general at Walmart? Are their attitudes, feelings, emotions, behaviors and interactions with their managers conditioned by an understanding of power as designated – power conferred by one’s position at work, for example, manager or hourly associate -; or distributive – that is, power as domination -; or integrative – a “relational view of power” focusing on a “both/and” maxim that acknowledges the importance of each person in the relationship, and each has something to offer (see Hocker and Wilmot, 2014, p. 105)?

Although Walmart’s organizational culture emphasizes the importance of an integrative approach to power relationship, the data collected from archival studies, interviews and other observational research revealed that Walmart associates tend to perceive their power relationship with managers not as integrative, but as distributive – which is an abuse of designated power. Almost all the people interviewed feel that their managers are dominating them, which could be interpreted as a forced manipulation “into a low-power role (Siefkes, 2010, as cited in Hocker and Wilmot, 2014, p. 105).

Since people with low-power within an organization cannot achieve their goals without some form of support, the suggestion to unionize the associates appears to be an alternative for most of the Walmart associates, hence the origin of alliance or coalition building between Our Walmart and its supporters.

Emerging Coalitions or Alliances

There are at least two different ways of understanding the various coalitions that have emerged from the Walmart-Associates conflict. The first is to study, identify, and itemize the current alliances supporting each party in this conflict. The second is to examine these alliances from a historical perspective with the aim of understanding how these coalitions developed from what was primarily a dyadic conflict – conflict between Walmart and its associates – to the formation of a “conflict triangle” (Hocker and Wilmot, 2014, p. 229) when the United Food and Commercial Workers intervened to supposedly support the associates in their unionization efforts, and then to the development of a multiple-layered coalitions on both sides of the aisle. While the first approach is appropriate for a PowerPoint presentation, the second approach is excellent for a dissertation research. This research, however, seeks to take a middle approach by itemizing the major coalitions involved in this conflict and based on the findings articulate briefly how these coalitions developed.

Conflict Dyad Parties Walmart Associates Walmart
Conflict Triangle Members Pro-Unionization Associates Representatives, and other interested Associates Supporters Walmart and some Associates Supporters
Alliance / Coalition Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart, an organization of Walmart Associates, by Walmart Associates, for Walmart Associates.) Walmart
Primary Coalition Supporter United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) through its campaign, ‘Making Change at Walmart” Walmart
Secondary Coalition Supporters Service Employees International Union (SEIU); Human Rights Organizations; Civic and Community Movements; and Religious Groups, etc. For a complete list, see the appendix. Worker Center Watch; Some elected officials; and other vested interest organizations and individuals.

The coalition listed in the table above developed from what was originally a dyad – conflict between Walmart and some of its associates, especially those who, because of perceived injustices, ill-treatment, disrespect, abuses of power on the part of management, and related labor and human rights violations, decided to unionize to balance power and meet their goals. As this conflict continued, and given the dynamics involved in the communication styles and organizational structure within Walmart, some hourly associates were faced with the decision to fight for unionization or to lose their job and face other punishments. This dominating, authoritarian stance on the part of Walmart management and the lack of freedom of expression inherent in the hierarchical organization structure of Walmart caused some associates to be silent about the unionization struggle.

This dynamics led to the emergence of a conflict triangle – the first coalition of Walmart associates between and across Walmart stores. A broader and stronger coalition was formed in November 2010 and launched in June 2011, and previous struggles and campaigns for the unionization of Walmart associates were rebranded and revitalized under the umbrella of Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart). This “marked the official public rollout of Our Walmart, which coincided with Walmart’s annual shareholders meeting and several dozen Walmart associates, former associates and union members held a rally … to mark the launch” (Worker Center Watch: Founding, Retrieved from The research revealed that Our Walmart receives its major funding and support from United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), even though members of Our Walmart pay a membership dues of $5 every month.

On the other side of the aisle, Walmart has also attracted the support of many vested interest stakeholders. Because of Walmart’s harsh stance against unions, and its pro-associate and open-door communication policies, organizations like Worker Center Watch – whose mission is to expose the bad intentions of unions-, as well as some elected officials, and other vested interest individuals, have rallied for the support and defense of Walmart.

The various interests that each alliance supporter have brought into the Walmart-Associates conflict contribute enormously to the complexity and intractability of the conflict. Designing dispute resolution systems and processes that will not only consider the interest (s) of these stakeholders, but will also transform the conflict, the parties involved, and the entire organization, becomes the major focus of the next section.

Dispute Systems Design

Building from the previous section of this research where I examined the various communication and conflict styles – avoiding, dominating (competing or controlling), obliging (accommodating), compromising, and integrating (collaborating) -, this section, dispute systems design, seeks to accomplish the following tasks: identify and acknowledge the different types of conflict management systems and processes or techniques currently being utilized at Walmart; evaluate the strengths and/or limitations of the current practice of conflict management; reflect on how the organizational structure might impact efforts to resolve the conflict; and finally recommend that a suitable and proactive dispute system and process be designed for implementation at Walmart.

Existing Conflict Management Systems and Processes

Before a new dispute system or process appropriate for the Walmart-Associates conflict be developed or designed by conflict interveners, it is important to first of all identify and acknowledge the existing “customary practices” (Rogers, Bordone, Sander, and McEwen, 2013) of conflict resolution at Walmart. It has been found by dispute systems designers that a failure to “take these practices into account [will] place the success of the design at risk” (Rogers et al., 2013, p. 88). For this reason, I propose to examine the various dispute resolution systems and processes that Walmart and Our Walmart have utilized and / or are currently using to manage their conflict. Some of these approaches are highlighted and discussed in detail in the Communication and Conflict Styles section of this chapter. My goal in this sub-section is to outline and summarize these systems and processes, while describing how they work, whether they are confidential, enforced, trusted by the parties, and could possibly lead to mutual satisfaction.

The data collected through interviews, archival research and observational study revealed that the dispute resolution processes listed in the table below have been utilized in the Walmart-Associates conflict. Some of them are currently in use.

System Open Door Communications Global Ethics Office Raising Concerns & Speaking Up online Tool Arbitration Adjudication
Process An internal process available at Walmart stores and in all the offices, “The Open Door Communications process is the most direct way to voice any concern to a manager” at any Walmart store. An internal process at Walmart aimed at “raising awareness of ethics policies and providing channels for stakeholders to bring ethics concerns to the attention of Walmart. It provides a confidential and anonymous reporting system” (Walmart Global Ethics Office, retrieved from An external third party intervener.A “dispute resolution procedure that involves the assistance of a third party to make decisions for disputants about how a conflict will be resolved when the parties cannot reach an agreement on their own” (Moore, 2014, p. 10). For this process, Walmart and Our Walmart have constantly used the services of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). An external, state-backed, and public process.Adjudication is a judicial process that “involves the use of an institutionalized and broadly supported dispute resolution mechanism and process, and the intervention of a recognized authority with the power and right to make a binding decision to resolve dispute” (Moore, 2014, p. 11).
How it Works The process ensures that “... any associate, at any time, at any level, in any location, may communicate verbally or in writing with any member of management up to the president, in ` confidence, without fear of retaliation...” (Walmart Labor Relations Team, 1997, p. 5).When a manager is involved in the problem, associates are required to discuss the issue with the next level of management. The Global Ethics provides a dedicated online reporting system and a hotline (1-800-WM-ETHIC; 1-800-963-8442) for associates to report their concerns immediately.To submit an ethics concern, associates are provided the following options to select from: anti-corruption, conflict of interest, discrimination, financial integrity, and harassment.Associates can also report a scheduling concern, a concern about a coaching they have received or make a request to transfer to another area.These concerns are transmitted to the Global Ethics Office for investigations and possible actions. The research findings revealed that on numerous occasions, Our Walmart has filed complaints against Walmart to the NLRB. To settle these disputes, the NLRB engages in four main processes: 1) investigation of charges; 2) facilitation of settlements; 3) deciding the cases; and 4) enforcement of orders.While NLRB often uses arbitration, they also use mediation and sometimes transfer the cases to the formal legal, court system. Our Walmart and their members have sued Walmart several times and some of the legal proceedings have resulted in settlements, fines or legal penalties worth millions of dollars.Walmart has also sued Our Walmart and its partners for illegal disruption of its businesses during the strikes they staged inside Walmart’s stores.
Confidentiality In theory, yes. Yes. For mediation, the process is confidential. But other rulings are accessible to the public (See NLRB, These are public proceedings.
Outcome & Enforceability Outcome is dependent on the decision of the manager, and is always in favor of the management’s goals, and enforced by Walmart Management. Outcome is dependent on the decisions of the Global Ethics Office, and is in favor of the goals of Walmart. Outcome is enforced by Walmart. The outcome is enforced by NLRB using different means. Yes, the outcome is enforced by the state.
Level of Satisfaction Low satisfaction on the part of associates Low satisfaction on the part of associates. High level of satisfaction by Our Walmart. Low satisfaction for Walmart.
Level of Trust in the Process Associates do not have confidence in the process. Open Door policy allows one associate and one manager at a time. An associate is not allowed to be accompanied by another associate during the Open Door process. Associates do not have confidence in the process although “The helpline is staffed by an organization not affiliated with Walmart. The operator will relay the information to Global Ethics office and will provide the associate with a case number and callback date if desired” (Walmart Global Ethics Office, 2016). Both parties seem to have trust in NLRB. Sometimes, parties do not trust the legal system.

Assessment of Strengths and Limitations of Existing Practice of Conflict Management

While this research acknowledges the importance of such systems and processes as the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the adjudication process, it seeks to underline the fact that these systems and processes are more adversarial in their nature and operation, and aimed at addressing rights-and power –based issues, and do not pay attention to the fundamental needs and interests of Walmart associates which, as revealed in the previous sections, revolve around the concept of dignity – the longing to improve their well-being, be treated well and fairly, and respected by managers. In order to address the needs and interests underlying this conflict, it is important that a system and process of communication that is trusted by Walmart associates should be established at Walmart. As the research data show, the existing communication and conflict resolution systems and processes – especially the Open Door policy and the Global Ethics raising concerns & speaking up online tool – would have served as indispensable tools to proactively prevent, resolve, and transform conflicts among associates, between associates and management, and between middle managers and higher leaders, if these systems were more transparent, trusted by the stakeholders, especially the associates, and independent of, and situated outside, the organizational hierarchical ranks.

How to transform the line or channel of communication in terms of dispute resolution design within Walmart remains a challenge that the dispute systems designer will have to overcome to be able to successfully inspire a change in Walmart. And this change should start by considering the impact of the existing organizational structure on efforts to resolve the current conflict between Walmart and its associates over unionization. 

Impacts of Walmart’s Organizational Structure on Efforts to Resolve the Conflict

In order to design a system and / or a process that will meet the needs of Walmart and its associates, it is also important to examine how the organizational structure affects the ongoing resolution efforts. In the previous section, it is noted that Walmart’s leadership base and management are framed using a hierarchical functional structure whereby the communication lines and decision making power influence descend from the top down, leaving the associates at the lowest sphere of influence with a feeling of powerlessness and inferiority. These negative feelings are compounded by the dominating style of communication explained in the previous section. The challenge that a dispute system designer will face at Walmart is how to constructively balance power between the associates and Walmart managers.

The research finding reveals that the hierarchical structure of Walmart has created an atmosphere whereby some managers conceive “power as distributive” (Hocker and Wilmot, 2014, p. 105), an idea of “power over or against,” or put differently, the “either/or” view of power. For example, when a manager tells an associate who is about to clock out at the end of the work shift: “either you stay and help out for additional one hour (i.e., work over time) or you may be fired the following day.” This is why most associates have raised complaints about being dominated, disrespected, and ill-treated. Because of the long-term relationship goals that exist between the associates and their employer, Walmart, this research recommends that the “either / or” attitude to power be balanced with an “integrative power, both/and power, power with, or collaboration” (Hocker and Wilmot, 2014, p. 131). The integrative model of power sharing is a good way to empower the associates at the bottom of the line of communication and power influence, motivate them to stay engaged, and finally shift the focus from the high power – low power dynamics to a work relationship that is anchored on the principles of interdependence.


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All questions about this publication should be sent to the author, Basil Ugorji, Ph.D., President and CEO, International Center for Ethno-Religious Mediation, New York. The research was conducted in Summer 2016 as part of the author’s Dispute Systems Design coursework at the Conflict Resolution Department of the Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. 


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