Lessons in Employee Engagement

While not specifically tech related, I saw so much within the Market Basket feud and related employee responses that it warrented some discussion, we’ll file this under the generic tag of “leadership”.

TL;DR for those outside New England

Market Basket is a family-owned & operated company which in the past half-century plus has become a very successful grocery chain, recognized as one of the most successful regional chains in America. A long-running family feud came to a head earlier this month with long-time, beloved CEO Arthur T. Demoulas being ousted by the Board of Directors. This resulted in the non-unionized employees of MB effectively going on strike, standing strong together even in the wake of firings. The most popular food stores in New England have bare shelves going on nearly a week due to drivers refusal to deliver and stores refusing to unload stock being delivered by non-MB drivers.


I personally am not a fan of shopping at Market Basket. I understand why so many people like MB, but the shopping experience has always left me frustrated and dissatisfied. I recognize I am in the minority in that opinion. But, over the past half-decade I have come to respect MB as a company and community member.

Violating Company Values

It should be noted that Market Basket is a private company, the definition of family-owned, with 9 shareholders all of whom are Demoulas family members. Three generations of Demoulas have run the company since its humble beginnings nearly a century ago. Not all of the shareholders work directly in the company.

As reported the Demoulas’ philosphy for Market Basket was people centered. The people who work for them, the people who shop with them, and the communities in which they set up stores. For decades the company has offered profit sharing, and very generous beneifts to their employees, while respecting their customers desire for quality food stuffs at reasonable prices. The company has run debt free, and invested in the growth of the company within the region, creating jobs and improving the economy throughout New England, all the while sustaining enviable profit margins.

Market Basket is a prime example of a company based on valuing its employees, with excellent benefits, including 15% profit sharing. Employees wear badges declaring their time of service with the company, many employees have decades of service, and for some it’s their family business to support the Demoulas’ family business.

The ousting of Arthur T. by the Board of Directors was driven by a minority shareholder (“Arthur S.”) who wanted to Board to incur $1.5 Billion in debt, and increase profit margins by raising prices, in order to provide shareholders with capital. The Boston Globe has a very clear graphic describing the lines of loyalty within the company and family, along with a timeline of events.

Employee Engagement

What immediately struck me about this situation was how the employees rallied around what they saw as a grave violation of the company values. While personified in their support for reinstating “Arthur T.” as CEO, they are voicing their disgust with how the Board of Directors has been unfaithful to the company values of trust, loyalty and valuing the human capital that defines the business.

Generous employee benefits, and a reportedly (prior to this event) excellent work environment certainly makes employees happy. This is obvious on visits to MB, the employees are happy. But, would happy employees risk getting fired in support of an ousted CEO?

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. Margaret Mead

Employees are engaged when they have an emotional commitment to their work. A happy, smiling workforce is not necessarily engaged. Living, breathing the company values and spending each work day striving to live up to the expectations of their co-workers is engaged. This doesn’t happen accidentally, it requires intentional focus from all members of the company to drive this kind of commitment.

Believing that a company is true to its stated values encourages the loyalty and commitment that is the bedrock of strong, sustainable and profitable businesses. Believing in the Senior Leadership and having pride in working for the company are key drivers, and companies with engaged employees outperform those without by up to 202%

Encouraging Engagement

It starts at the top. Senior Leadership sets the tone. When they are truly living up to the values of the company, and sharing a clear vision with employees, trust is established.

Encouraging employees to participate in influencing the company vision, and demonstrating that they are valued for their contributions and have a direct impact on their work environment gives employees a sense of empowerment.

Culture fosters engagement, while environment feeds happiness.

CEOs think about this … does paid health insurance, foosball tables and Friday Happy Hours mean your employees would risk their livelihood to support you?

UPDATE fixed two misspellings