Safeway, Tone Deaf to Stakeholders, Has a Miserable Week


safeway, ryan young, leon kaye, corporate governance, Robert Gordon, stakeholder engagement, facebook, social media, Del Ray Oaks, Del Ray Oaks Safeway, Monterey, Quyen Van Tran
Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Safeway had a nightmare of a week, and based on the social media firestorm, recent criticism of the supermarket chain will not stop anytime soon. The problem started a month ago when a butcher at the Del Rey Oaks Safeway in the Monterey Peninsula was suspended without pay for defending a pregnant woman who was beaten by her boyfriend in the store. Then, at last week’s annual shareholder meeting, the company’s general counsel decided an obnoxious joke, which some women could find offensive, was a hilarious way to start the day.

When your stock price has been on a downward trend the past five years, your competitors from Walmart to Whole Foods to Amazon are only becoming more fierce, and your customers are quick to assail your company over everything from customer service to ethics, you would think a company’s executives would listen and try to respond accordingly. Instead, Safeway is issuing the same tired public relations babble: and customers are having none of it. Stakeholder engagement has become stakeholder enragement.

Safeway’s PR headache started on April 21 when Ryan Young, a meat clerk, confronted Quyen Van Tran, who was kicking and beating his pregnant girlfriend. When Tran refused to stop his rampage, Young struck him. The local police chief sent a letter to the store manager that commended him for his actions. A customer who witnessed the scene said Young acted accordingly. Another manager at the store supported Young and said everything would be fine. But the following day, Young was suspended without pay. As his suspension enters its second month, the local union has said they have expedited the review. Meanwhile Young’s wife is five months pregnant and the suspension has put them under financial stress. Safeway has since issued this statement:

“There are two sides to every story, and we would ask that judgment be reserved. We will be relying on the video and other relevant evidence as well as statements of eyewitnesses and other information to make a final decision.”

Actually the story has a lot of sides, with almost no one siding with Safeway. Customers, former suppliers and ex-employees are responding in kind, and the reactions are not pretty. Calls to reinstate Ryan Young and compensate him for back wages are plastering Safeway’s Facebook page. Self-congratulatory comments about Safeway’s employee volunteering bring up comments about Young’s heroism. Another statement posted on Facebook about the investigation is only scoring more sneering comments in defense of Young. And when the company touted its new breakfast sandwich line, one heckler retorted:

I’d have a great day if you gave Ryan his job and full pay + bonus for defending a pregnant woman. AND an even better day if you put your executives on unpaid leave for insulting women.

Speaking of women, Safeway’s general counsel Robert Gordon started Safeway’s annual shareholder meeting last Wednesday with an off-color joke that could be funny depending on your political persuasion or in the politically incorrect safety of your own home . . . but probably was not the most tactful comment if you had at least a few women in the ballroom. The joke comparing a couple powerful women to pigs was also an awkward way to start a meeting when talking about how a company can enhance its public reputation and image. Never mind the fact that Secret Service jokes are getting old, or the stupidity of telling such a joke when it is going to live forever as a recording on your firm’s web site. Gordon did apologize, giving the standard “I’m sorry IF I offended anyone” line (which usually means “I’m sorry I was called out and not allowed to get away with my poor judgment.”).

So while one employee who took a noble course of action waits in limbo without pay, an executive has a public relations professional release a halfhearted apology and still scores a paycheck. A company has taken a month to resolve a situation that has a police report and videotape clearly outlying the incident. And that same C-level executive wanted to score some cheap humor instead of explaining to shareholders why the company’s stock is a crummy buy. Integrity and ethical behavior are critical pillars of corporate governance, but right now Safeway’s management is a laughingstock, even though a lot of angry customers and stockholders find nothing amusing in this grocery chain’s rather sad week.

Leon Kaye, based in California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

15 responses

  1. Sounds about right for the Safeway, ie the totalitarianistic company I work for. To throw some additional dirt, and get something off my chest that bothers me… At a mandatory sexual harrassment training class for pharmacy managers, we were told under no circumstance is any employee allowed to hug anybody. Of I course I offered up the hypothetical of a patient who shares with their pharmacist that a close relative died, and are standing in tears, would it be ok to ask them if they want a hug? The response? It’s against company policy. Now I’m not a hug fanatic, but I think this stance is too black and white for a gray world. I’ll break that policy every time if the answer is yes.

  2. Leon, I’ve seen a few articles on the joke told by the GC over the weekend.  I’ve known of the joke for at least a decade and it’s a recycled joke used in any administration.  The first time I heard it, a man was the bargaining chip for the pigs in the intentionally-ridiculous trade scenario. The joke has nothing to do with the fact that the politicians are women, evidenced by the fact that the joke works equally well when a man is used.  How, then, can a joke be sexist when it doesn’t matter what the gender is of the characters in the joke?

    I’m sad to see another person reporting on that joke as a story without actually understanding what’s going on, especially when shown alongside an actual news story like Ryan Young’s.

    1.  Phil, I listened to the tape and have read the text. Although in the big scheme of things what the GC said wasn’t totally off the wall. However, it makes me question his understanding of branding, corporate social responsibility, social media and his opinions about women in general as well as in the boardroom. Personally, I didn’t like the fact that he used Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi as the recipients of the pigs because both women have been the recipients of so much vitriol. And given the current climate of political issues regarding women, for a board meeting to start with a joke that involves women, especially well known, powerful women, which can be interpreted as tasteless and offensive is not too smart. Many people are more prone to appreciating board meetings where the members appear smarter than rednecks.

      1. Karen… you make a lot of sense and ultimately I agree with you. The joke was clearly not the best option (or a good one at all, really) given the current political climate.  I am still unable to make the jump to calling the man “sexist” (not that you did) for the joke, but as others have said opening yourself up to interpretation can be considered a fault in and of itself.

        1. Bah! No worries. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written angry, or glowing paragraphs for reports like this and found out I  . . . completely misunderstood the data in front of me. My point was more on the how, not the what  . . . and in this era of social media, companies have to be nimble . . . and not condescending . . . 

      2. Exactly. I didn’t say the joke was sexist, and I thought I had made it clear it was open to interpretation. But in a 24/7 news cycle era, and with everything going on in the news, it was not the smoothest move. I think Karen was spot on. 99% of us share off colored jokes with our peers (the rest of us are liars). The head of HR/GC should have known better. We don’t know all the facts, but Safeway is handling this POORLY.

        1. Leon, you’re right, you didn’t say the joke was sexist. I apologize. I definitely agree with you… it was not a smooth move by Safeway. Thanks to you Karen for your maturity in discussing with me :)

        2.  Thanks, @leonkaye:disqus  and @google-1ed655d40de1ea74180bc75df44e7de2:disqus . I have a hard time making the jump to calling the GC sexist as well based on this one incident.

  3. I’m not coming to the defense of either party here, but there *must* be more to the story here than we’re reading.   What did Safeway actually say?  Is there a video tape?  Did this Ryan guy go further than he should have in some capacity?   It’s easy to have a knee jerk reaction to this kind of thing, but without Safeway actually giving their case, you just don’t know the full story!

    1. Lionel that’s a good point. Maybe even I was quick to jump to judgment on that one.  I’m not exactly familiar with the particulars of the incident; it certainly sounded like the guy was doing the right thing, but I think I agree with you that we should wait and hear the full story before rushing to conclusions.

    2. I think this says it all… From an interview of the boyfriend who assaulted his girlfriend in the store: And despite Tran (boyfriend) thinking this has been blown out of proportion he does say: “I’m not saying what he (Young) did was wrong. He did what he had to do. I would’ve done the same thing.”

  4. I’m sure there are two sides to the story here, but it does seem odd that Safeway wouldn’t be able to communicate that better, especially faced with a firestorm of assumptions swirling through the media.  Hope to hear something soon on this!

  5. How can it take more than a month to come to a conclusion about what happened, particularly with videotape and police reports available, and a police chief’s commendation for the suspended employee?  If they had suspended him with pay, pending the outcome of the investigation, that’s one thing, but without pay??  How many of us could go a month without income, particularly when expecting a child?

    I’ve read an article that stated Safeway issued a statement that the employee was not suspended for coming to the aid of the pregnant customer but for “something else” seen on the videotape.  Really?  He’s suspended the day after the attack for “something else” ?  Wouldn’t his heroism on behalf of the woman and her unborn child been enough to counter his doing “something else” ?  You’d think so, wouldn’t you?

    From the San Francisco Chronicle online:

    Safeway spokeswoman Teena Massingill says Young was not suspended without pay for coming to the woman’s aid, but for other unspecific actions that were caught on a store surveillance video.The company is reviewing the footage along with the union that represents Safeway workers.Read more:

  6. You’d think Safeway would have learned its lesson to avoid boneheaded moves after the huge media blow-up over one of their Honolulu store managers calling the cops in October 2011 on a pregnant woman and her husband over a $5 sandwich eaten in the store and not paid for (even though the couple asked to pay when the alleged oversight was brought to their attention), resulting in their children being taking into DHS custody.

    It would seem that Safeway has no concern about alienating its consumer base.

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