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MNB reported last week on a Wal-Mart in Nitro, West Virginia, where store manager John Knuckles informed employees that they must be prepared to work any shift at any time and on any amount of notice – or they will be fired. The some 400 employees who work there had until Friday to make a written commitment to total, unquestioning availability, or they would be fired.

Or not.

Faced with enormous criticism of the manager – at least in part generated when he told USA Today about his policy decision, Wal-Mart corporate headquarters released a statement late last week saying that the company has no such policy, and overruled the store manager.

"It is unfortunate that our store manager incorrectly communicated a message that was not only inaccurate but also disruptive to our associates at the store," Wal-Mart spokesman told the Charleston Gazette. “We do not have any policy that mandates termination.”

The question being raised outside Wal-Mart, of course, is whether the company really had a change of heart, if the store manager really was acting on his own, or if this was just a trial balloon that didn’t fly.

And, there also is a larger question that has nothing to do with Wal-Mart – at least not specifically. This has to do with the tension that exists between life and work in a culture that prizes so-called “personal time” while rewarding workaholics.

Ironically, the Boston Globe had a piece yesterday about the whole issue of work-life balance, noting that the Wharton School “has set up an innovative '’work-life integration’ course to show students how to juggle work, family, and community -- without sacrificing career goals.” And, the Globe writes, “Other business schools are starting to include courses that examine work-life issues in their curriculum. Harvard Business School includes work-life courses in its executive education classes but not in its MBA program. Such schools as MIT Sloan School of Management and the University of Connecticut School of Business address work-life topics in other courses. Stanford Graduate School of Business will offer a class next fall that examines how people integrate work and life.“

Such topics are being taught in the classrooms because many professionals in the business world say they feel overworked and would like to spend more time on their personal lives. One recent study by the Families and Work Institute, a New York research group, indicated the pattern existed with all workers, with slightly more than half of Americans with jobs saying they feel overwhelmed by their work at least some of the time and a third saying that was always the case. A common solution to this feeling of imbalance is to trade career success for a fuller personal life.”

It really is a question of values – and company leaders and managers needing to realize that not everyone shares the same priorities. It also is a question of reality – since there are studies suggesting that it isn’t always the people working the longest hours who contribute the most to a company’s bottom line. It is a question of culture – what kind of company does its management envision, and with what kind of people? And, finally, it is a question of looking inward, as the people who run companies decide what kinds of leaders and managers they wish to be.

Important questions to answer – especially because they shape not just how we live our lives, but the way the nation and the world look.

We’ve had a number of emails on the subject since the original story ran last week…prompted at least in part when in our commentary we referred to the store manager as a “knucklehead,”

One MNB user wrote:

Employees who don't like the "knucklehead" policy can voice their opposition by simply ending their job at Wal-Mart. Nobody is putting a gun to anybody's head. So what's the big deal and why the bad mouthing? Of course, those UFCW crooks will take every chance they get to sling mud at Wal-Mart.

I believe this policy extends to even the highest of management. They must be there for Wal-Mart when they are needed. They eat, drink, breathe Wal-Mart. That's how Wal-Mart, a small regional retailer in 1970s, is now the largest retailer in the world.

And I think that's a reasonable policy. At my job, I'm given a pager. There have been periods where I was told that they can page me at anytime and I have to answer the page.

Here's what Jack Welch said about work-personal life balance in his book "Winning": "There's lip service about work-life balance, and then there's reality. To make the choices and take the actions that ultimately make sense for you, you need to understand that reality: your boss's top priority is competitiveness. Of course he wants you to be
happy, but only inasmuch as it helps the company win.”

We hate to take issue with Jack Welch, but we would suggest that it is a lot easier to issue pronouncements on life-work balance when you make a gazillion dollars, have all the help in the world and don’t have to deal with the same practical issues as mere mortals. (Except of course, divorce attorneys…but that’s another issue.)

MNB user David J. Livingston wrote:

It’s no different than if a soldier in the army refused to report because they said they could not find a baby sitter. Should Wal-Mart be any different than the army? Retailing is just another kind of war.

Everybody is entitled to their own opinion. But we think this metaphor is absurd.

MNB user Stephen Hirlinger wrote:

Do we really believe that this manager has the autonomy to make this kind of far-reaching personal decision without corporate HR involvement? When we consider how much Wal-Mart is under the public eye, it is very difficult for me to think this individual made this decision in a vacuum.

MNB user Jeremy L. Sacker wrote:

You are right, this is not even management, this is bullying.

And another MNB user wrote:

I have never heard, and hopefully never will hear, that someone on their deathbed says, " I wish I had spent more time at work!!" The Knucklehead may have no personal life. He wrongly thinks he will look good on the backs of those who work for him. The person who says every job demands this, is way wrong. I work to have money to live and do things to enjoy the life I have away from my job. My job ALWAYS interferes with my life. It is not the other way around. If it were ever to turn around in my mind, life would not be worth living. No corporation EVER appreciates what employees do. (Some work at trying, but they can never be totally successful at that.) Executives and owners just smile all the way to the bank.
KC's View:
Clearly, there are a lot of perspectives on this issue…which is why we’ve highlighted them here, instead of using them in “Your Views,” below.

We believe that common sense has to be applied to the issue of work-life balance. It depends on how much you make, on how critical your job responsibilities are, and on the specific circumstances surrounding the job, the person and the demands.

We don’t think that highly paid managers should make unilateral demands on hourly employees just because they can. At the end of the day, it isn’t really good for the company and it shows a lack of talent in the management ranks.

Leadership – and commitment to the employee – are far more effective ways to encourage workers to show commitment to the company.

We said it last week and we’ll say it again.

Some people are managers. Some people are leaders. And you can always tell the difference just by looking at the people who work for them.