As far as supermarket jobs are concerned, working at Trader Joe’s seems like an unquestionably solid gig. You get benefits and a competitive hourly wage, while managers clad in Hawaiian shirts dole out smiles and positivity. The company’s small neighborhood feel and specialty products have helped it balloon from a humble southern California company into a national behemoth.
But, as a recently published exposé in The New York Times suggests, the company’s reputation for offering a “wow customer experience” is often prized above its rank and file employees, who complain of a toxic environment created by managers for the notoriously secretive company.
The focal point of this story is Thomas Nagle, a longtime employee of a Manhattan Trader Joe’s store. Nagle was fired, ostensibly for having a smile that wasn’t “genuine” enough to satisfy his bosses.
Behind the sunny veneer at Trader Joe’s, according to Nagle, was a pretty repressive environment. He told the Times that he and his fellow employees were often forbidden from speaking to each other during certain times of their shifts, and that certain managers were domineering. He told the Times he was chastised for returning a sweatshirt to his locker after finishing a job in the freezer.
“If anyone’s confused, there’s no product to work in the locker room,” his manager reportedly said.
Other Trader Joe’s employees across the Northeast and Middle Atlantic regions echoed Nagle's experiences. Just at Nagle's store, though, one coworker earned a reprimand for sipping water while working the cash register, while others occasionally got sick from fumes wafting through the store.
Nagle supplied all of this information to the Times by recording his performance reviews with managers. Incredibly, the crux of them centered on Nagle’s smile, and whether or not it masked a lousy attitude. “I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen you like genuinely smile,” a manager told Nagle.
Rather than just badmouthing TJ's, however, Nagle's claims have implications: on Thursday he filed a suit with the National Labor Relations Board alleging unfair labor practices. According to the Times, many experts say denying employees the right to discuss working conditions with each other and the public is a breach of federal policy.
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Sam Blum is a News Staff Writer for Thrillist. He's also a martial arts and music nerd who appreciates a fine sandwich and cute dogs. Find his clips in The Guardian, Rolling Stone, The A.V. Club and Vice. He's on Twitter @Blumnessmonster.