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Urban Outfitters Asks Employees to Work for Free

leonkaye headshotWords by Leon Kaye
Leadership & Transparency
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A job in retail has become the only option for many workers who are either in a career transition or did not, or could not, pursue education post-high school. For those who completed their associate’s or bachelor’s degree, the post-2008 financial crisis fallout diverted many college grads onto the retail sector management track.

Previously such voids had long been filled by factories, but many of them have closed or only employ people who have specialized skills. Unfortunately, for many employees, retail does not pay as well as manufacturing, and decent benefits such as health care and sick pay are often lacking.

So, while many of us fret over what retailers such as H&M are doing, or not doing, within their supply chains, there is also plenty of nefarious behavior within the retail industry that should cause concern here at home. The world’s largest retailer, Walmart, has been called out for its share of labor abuses and shady employment practices, while other chains have been quick to throw their employees under the bus when tough times hit. Other retailers have gone against the grain, and have reaped the results: Container Store and Costco come to mind, where decent wages and respect pay dividends.

Which is why, for a retailer focused on the under-30 crowd, a demographic that is often quick to hold businesses accountable for their actions, Urban Outfitters' shenanigans highlight what is often wrong with retail. A recent episode has created a public relations nightmare for its parent company, URBN — as in, having its actions publicized and relentlessly mocked by the likes of Gawker. But for many retail workers, a “call for volunteers” is far more serious and hits too close to home.

Earlier this week, an email went out to employees at URBN’s corporate headquarters in Philadelphia. The email, with the subject line, “A Call for URBN Volunteers!,” asked employees to help out at a new warehouse in rural Lancaster County, about a 90-minute drive from Philly. Employees were told that not only would they help fulfill orders, but that it would also be a great “team building activity.” Free transportation was provided, and employees were given the options of at least one Saturday in October to help out for a six-hour shift. The online registration form, along with the email, ended up leaking to the public — though at press time volunteers were no longer able to sign up.

Now, it’s important to remember that this email supposedly went to only salaried employees. Hourly workers apparently were not invited to volunteer their time to help their company during one of the busiest months of the year. And perhaps it should not be too surprising that a company that owns a brand called Free People is asking for volunteers. But what this email shows is a creative way to bully employees into giving up their weekends, not to mention that URBN employed an obnoxious tactic when the fact is that plenty of people would be willing to work on Saturdays — just not for free.

URBN’s email was not a call to “volunteer” in community service to build a house, work in a food bank or collect clothes for those in need. And of course, when many employees feel insecure about their jobs, or are pining for a promotion, they will feel compelled to respond to such a call. Such a call for volunteers, in fact, is an insult to anyone who has given up his or her free time for a real cause.

Needless to say, this perky email was passed around the Internet, which led the company to send out a statement saying the company received a “tremendous response,” and that the “dedication and commitment of URBN employees are second to none.” Hourly employees also responded, according to the company, but were “declined” in order to ensure compliance with labor laws. “Their response to this request is a testament to their solidarity and continued success,” was the closing to this statement, an ironic choice of words in case anyone remembers what happened in early 1980s Poland.

Naturally, this call-to-action received plenty of snark on Gawker in the comments section. If URBN’s stunt accomplished anything, it will serve as a human resources management case study of why it is not only important to use a dictionary when asking employees to work extra hours, but to consult a thesaurus as well, so that better word choices are made.

Image credit: Urban Outfitters

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye, Executive Editor, has written for Triple Pundit since 2010. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media, and the Editor in Chief of CR Magazine. His previous work can be found at The GuardianSustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye