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The Case of the Furlough Foul

When a long-term employee is let go during the pandemic, she goes online to badmouth the company for seeking someone younger and less expensive.

Christine Kalen had been with Goldman Jewelers for nearly 30 years. Well … sort of. Christine started with the mid-sized national chain when she was 18 and just out of high school. After deciding that college was not on her “to do” list, she got a job at the newly opened Goldman store in the local mall and learned quickly that she loved both sales and fine jewelry. Her manager and district manager could see that she was a natural, and they ensured that she got the training she needed to support her innate ability. Christine was one of the top salespeople in the company by the end of her second year in the store.

While her sales were off the charts, Christine’s immaturity and perpetual penchant for drama created ongoing challenges for Goldman management. Over the years, competitors’ recruitment efforts, disagreements with management and a variety of personal issues prompted Christine to leave the company on several different occasions. However, after periods ranging from a few months to three years, she would always respond to company overtures to bring her back, and Goldman, it seemed, was always glad to reclaim her ability and her productivity — despite her “high maintenance” reputation. As Rick Ammons, Goldman District Manager was known to say, “A million in sales covers a lot of behavior problems.” A consummate negotiator, Christine made sure she came back each time with a raise in pay and her company tenure restored. In January 2020, Christine was beginning year 9 of her longest continuous stretch with Goldman. While occasional challenges persisted, her willingness to accept a transfer to the company’s largest store, a 45-minute commute from her home, helped drive her 2019 sales over $1.3 million while her negotiated immunity from reductions in the company’s commission structure pushed her income for the year over $85,000 – making her one of Goldman’s highest paid salespeople. The long commute was taking a toll on her personal life, though. So during a February meeting with Rick Ammons, Christine made it clear that she wanted — and expected — to be moved back to a Goldman store closer to her home. Rick assured her that although there wasn’t an opening available at that point, he would work something out for her as quickly as he could.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected]

With many stores in local and regional malls across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Goldman Jewelers especially hard. By late March, all but a few of the company’s stores were closed completely. Store employees were furloughed while Goldman stepped up their e-commerce positioning in an effort to stay afloat. Over a three-month period, the company was forced to assess the potential value and profitability of each of their locations, and ultimately decided to close just under a third of their stores permanently. When the remaining stores began to reopen in June, managers were brought back first, many taking reductions in position and pay in exchange for a guaranteed spot in the reconfigured Goldman structure.

As one of the furloughed workers, Christine was content collecting enhanced unemployment. She was happy with the fact that the company fully covered employee health insurance during the shutdown, but was already complaining about the stipulation that they would be required to repay their portions of the premiums through payroll deductions once they were brought back to work.

When Christine got the call to return in early July, she was told that the only spot available for her was at a lower volume store nearly an hour away from her home. Rick assured her that the placement would be temporary, and that he would personally see that she was moved to the store they had discussed prior to the shutdown as soon as possible. Christine decided that the commute combined with the significant reduction in commissions would make going back to work a less-than-sensible option for her, so she declined the position. After three more weeks of “official” furlough, she received a letter from Goldman terminating her employment.

When her unemployment benefits ran out a couple of weeks later, Christine began her new job search in earnest, starting with a deep dive into the major online job sites. She was shocked while exploring Indeed.com when she saw that Goldman had posted an opening for an assistant manager — which she knew was essentially a top salesperson with store keys — at the location closest to her home. Furious, she dashed off a text to Rick, asking what was going on, and why she wasn’t called back for the job. He told her that once she was officially terminated, she was no longer eligible for reinstatement, and that if she was interested, she could apply for the job as a new employee. In a subsequent text, he added that it wasn’t personal … that they just needed to find a “young person who could help with social media” while also filling the sales position. Christine knew immediately that something wasn’t right, as Goldman employees had always been expressly prohibited from involving the company in any social media activity. All of that was handled and closely monitored by the advertising department. When she looked at the posting again, she noticed that there was no mention of social media skills, and more importantly, that the job was listed with an hourly rate that was less than half of what she had been making previously.

Without a second thought, Christine took to social media herself, telling her story in tweets and Facebook posts, as well as in Google, Yelp and Glass Door reviews. She made it clear that in her view, Goldman was using discriminatory hiring practices and was taking advantage of the pandemic to get rid of their higher paid employees while hiring new ones at sub-standard wages. The next day, she got a direct message in response to one of her posts from a local attorney asking to meet with her to discuss her situation.

 

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER

Is it reasonable for a company to use an available opportunity to move a highly paid, high-maintenance, long-term employee along in favor of someone younger, less experienced and less expensive? How should Goldman senior management deal with the Rick, the district manager who put the company at risk with his unrealistic promises and unfortunate choice of words in response to Christine’s question about the job posting? As an employer, would you hire Christine – knowing only that she was a million-plus producer?


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