September 27, 2013

Bullying at Aldi

Aldi store facade (photo: Hans-Jürgen Schulz)
Aldi: Its stores look increasingly modern, but how attractive are they for young jobseekers? (photo: Hans-Jürgen Schulz)
The recent coming to light of the humiliation of young trainees at an Aldi distribution centre in Baden-Württemberg last year gives pause for thought.

A report in German magazine Spiegel claims that victims were tied up with cling foil and had their faces painted with a felt-tip pen, but were too scared to report the matter because they were worried about losing their jobs.

Such allegations cast a lurid light; but could they also harm the German discount giant’s long-term competitive position?

An otherwise taciturn Aldi has reacted professionally and issued a statement confirming the allegations: “We are perturbed that internal enquiries have revealed that the event described is essentially true.” Aldi also says that it is “disgusted” and that disciplinary action has been taken against the management and staff involved.

However, this incident is by no means the first of numerous complaints over the years by individuals and trades unions about the working conditions at German discounters.

It was originally mentioned by former Aldi manager Andreas Straub in his second book slamming the work practices at the ruthlessly efficient retail giant that he portrays as mobbing.

Protest against Aldi bashing

In a TV talk show this July ('Markencheck' followed by 'hartaberfair' on TV station ARD) retail expert Professor Thomas Roeb, himself a former Aldi manager, spoke out against “Aldi bashing” and gave the author a trenchant and feisty reply: “If you want to grow in terms of personal development, then become a teacher at a Walldorf kindergarten.”

This could be paraphrased in English with something like: If you don’t like the heat, then you can always get out of the kitchen.

There is, however, a growing school of thought that the repeated incidents of alleged workplace malpractice at German discounters are systemic.

The argument runs that a rough necked company will tend to foster similar behavioural traits throughout the whole organisation and only attract a certain type of person. This sounds plausible, but is difficult to prove.

Of course, the immediate furore will soon die down as it has often done with many other stories. But the recent events at Aldi are a double blow to the privately-run discounter.

Ever fewer young people

For years retailers have worried about a growing recruitment crisis. They see the age pyramid and a decreasing number of young people entering the work force relative to the total population.

Add to this the traditionally rather poor image retailers have with young people as potential employers, which has only recently begun to improve, and the latest negative publicity creates the worst conceivable PR.

Of course, similar incidents also occur in many other business segments, and it would be naïve to maintain the contrary. Most of us have experienced humiliation at the workplace; indeed, some are on the receiving end on a daily basis; others like Maupassant’s anti-hero in "Bel-Ami" regard it as a necessary condition for career advancement.

But even the navy offers young recruits the opportunity “to see the sea”. To stack shelves and be tarred and feathered is perhaps not the most alluring proposition?

Podcast microphone (photo: Gerhard Seybert-Fotolia)
(photo: Gerhard Seybert-Fotolia)

Podcast. Click arrow to listen to an audio version of the text:

Lebensmittel Zeitung print and digital (photo: LZ)
Our German B2B newspaper, Lebensmittel Zeitung, in print & digital
Read in German: by Gerd Hanke in Lebensmittel Zeitung, no. 39, 27.10.2013 


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