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Organizational Behavior

Critical Thinking Case

Organizational BehaviorCritical Thinking Case

Motivating Employees at JCPenney, Walmart, and Amazon in the Age of Online Shopping

In the 1980s, Walmart had killed (or was killing) the mom-and-pop store. “Buy local” signs were seen, urging consumers to buy from their local retailers rather than from the low-cost behemoth. Markets have continued to shift and the “buy local” signs are still around, but now the battleground has shifted with the disruptive growth of e-commerce. Even mighty Walmart is feeling some growing pains.

Census Bureau data for 2017 shows that e-commerce, or online shopping, accounted for 8.9 percent of all retail sales in the United States, accounting for $111.5 billion (U.S. Census Bureau 2017). Feeling the pinch, many malls across the country are closing their doors, and their empty retail spaces are being repurposed. Credit Suisse predicts that due to competition from online shopping, 20 to 25 percent of American malls will close within the next five years (Dying Malls Make Room for New Condos Apartment 2017). Furthermore, according to a 2017 study, 23 percent of Americans already purchase their groceries online (Embrace the Internet, Skip the Checkout 2017).

Whether face-to-face with customers or filling orders in a warehouse, motivated employees are essential to business success. And company culture helps drive that motivation. As a 2015 Harvard Business Review article put it, “Why we work determines how well we work” (McGregor & Doshi 2015). Adapting earlier research for the modern workplace, the study found six reasons that people work: play, purpose, potential, emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia. The first three are positive motives while that later three are negative. The researchers found that role design, more than any other factor, had the highest impact on employee motivation.

Anecdotally, using role design to motivate employees can be seen across industries. Toyota allows factory workers to innovate new processes on the factory floor. Southwest Airlines encourages a sense of "play" among crewmembers who interact directly with passengers (which has resulted in some humorous viral videos). A sense of the organization’s identity (and a desire to be part of it) and how the career ladder within the company is perceived are second and third in their impact on employee motivation. Unhealthy competition for advancement can do more harm than good to employee motivation, and as a result many large companies are restructuring their performance review and advancement systems (McGregor & Doshi 2015). Conversely, costs from unmotivated employees can be high. In August 2017, retailer JCPenney had an employee arrested who had allegedly cost the company more than $10,000 in stolen cash and under-rung merchandise at a mall store. Another employee had stolen more than $1,000 of clothes from the store less than a month earlier.

Brick-and-mortar retail outlets from Macy’s to Walmart have come under pressure by increased online shopping, particularly at Walmart has responded by both trying to improve the shopping experience in its stores and creating an online presence of its own. A recent study funded by Walmart found that 60 percent of retails workers lack proficiency in reading and 70 percent have difficulty with math (Class is in session at Walmart Academy 2017). Increasing math and team skills for the employees would increase efficiency and certainly help improve employee self-image and motivation. With this in mind, Walmart has created one of the largest employer training programs in the country, Walmart Academy (McGregor & Doshi 2015). The company expects to graduate more than 225,000 of its supervisors and managers from a program that covers topics such as merchandising and employee motivation. In another program, Pathways, Walmart has created a course that covers topics such as merchandising, communication, and retail math (Walmart 2016 Global Responsibility Report 2016). The Pathways program was expected to see 500,000 entry-level workers take part in 2016 (Walmart 2016). All employees who complete the course receive a dollar an hour pay increase. Educating employees pays off by recognizing that the effort put in pays off with better-motivated and better-educated employees. In the case of Walmart, “upskilling” has become a priority.

Walmart has gone beyond education to motivate or empower employees. In 2016, pay raises for 1.2 million employees took effect as part of a new minimum-wage policy, and it streamlined its paid time off program that same year (Schmid 2017). In its 2016 Global Responsibility Report, Walmart points out that over the course of two years, the company has invested $2.7 billion in wages, benefits, and training in the United States (Staley 2017).

Critical Thinking Questions
  1. A 2015 New York Times article described Amazon as “a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard” (Cook 2015 n.p.). Employees themselves came to the company’s defense (Ciubotariu 2015). Does this reputation continue to haunt Amazon, or has it been addressed?
  2. How do employees differ between a Walmart retail location and an Amazon order fulfillment center? How many white-collar or skilled jobs does Amazon have compared to Walmart?
  3. With Amazon moving into the retail market with the purchase of Whole Foods, and with Walmart expanding its e-commerce, how are employee motivation challenges going to shift?


Ciubotariu, Nick. 2015. “An Amazonian's response to "Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace." LinkedIn.

Class is in session at Walmart Academy. 2017. Bend Bulletin.

Cook, John. 2015. “Full memo: Jeff Bezos responds to brutal NYT story, says it doesn’t represent the Amazon he leads.” GeekWire.

“Dying Malls Make Room for New Condos Apartment.” 2017. Bend Bulletin.

“Embrace the Internet, Skip the Checkout.” 2017. Bend Bulletin.

McGregor, Lindsay and Doshi, Neel. 2015. “How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation.” Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review.

Schmid, Emily. 2017. “Work That Matters: Looking Back on 2 Years of Investing in People.” Walmart Today. Bentonville, AR: Walmart Digital Communications.

Staley, Oliver. 2017. “ Walmart—yes, Walmart—is making changes that could help solve America’s wealth inequality problem.” Yahoo! Finance.

U.S. Census Bureau. 2017. Quarterly Retail E-Commerce Sales, 2nd Quarter 2017. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce.

WalMart 2016 Global Responsibility Report. 2016. Bentonville, AR: Walmart.

Walmart. 2016. “Pathways program infographic. Bentonville, AR: Walmart.

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