"The greatness and the genuine trait of your thought and writings lie on the fact that you positively and interestingly make use of philosophical thoughts and thoughtfulness in order to deeply and concretely cogitate about America's social issues. . . . This does not mean that your thought is reducible to your era: your thought, being inspired by issues characterizing your era . . . , overcomes your era and will still likely be up to date even after your era, for future generations." Bruno Valentin

Monday, June 9, 2014

On the Toxicity of Ineptitude and Denial: The Case of Wal-mart's Pharmacy

On June 6, 2014, Walmart conducted its annual stockholder meeting under “scrutiny on all fronts.”[1] Revenue at the company’s stores in the U.S. had declined for five consecutive quarters. Walmart was also facing ethical questions over how the company’s executives handled bribery allegations at the Mexican division, as well as on the low wages going to non-supervisory workers (esp. part-timers). In short, the question facing the management was whether the company was being managed by cutting corners, as manifest both in terms on incompetence and unethical conduct. That the shareholder proposal to split off the chair of the board from the CEO did not meet even a preliminary tally of votes suggests that the company would sooner go under than that its management would be held to account.

On the day of the meeting, I happened to be at a Walmart store for what must have been two hours. I had stopped in to pick up medicine only to find that the pharmacy employees had lost my prescription. “You cancelled it and it was handed back to you,” an employee informed me. The system says you have it. Well, I didn’t, and after waiting over an hour for a manager to look at the camera footage, I was coming to the conclusion that someone had lied to cover up the mistake. For the prescription was cancelled and returned to me forty-five minutes after camera footage showed me leaving the store for the day. “You could have phoned in the cancellation,” the store manager suggested. Unfortunately for him, that would not explain how the paper prescription got into my hands.

Turning to his assistant, the shift manager, I asked if it is likely that the prescription had been inadvertently thrown way. “Oh, no, that doesn’t happen here,” she assured me. “Well,” I concluded, “then if no one handed it to me, and your employees don’t throw things out in there, then the prescription should still be in there, right?” Even as she nodded affirmatively—meaning the paper had been misplaced—the store manager interjected his view that the chances are minimal that it is still there. “The system indicates that it was given to you,” he said. I was stunned. Had he not been listening? I began to understand how it could be that the front managers and cashiers could have been getting away with treating customers so rudely right under the nose of the store’s manager. He went on to add that he and his assistant had done “excellent due diligence” and unfortunately the camera angle did not give him a clear view of me talking with the pharmacist after I had dropped off the prescription so he couldn’t be sure—in spite of having “an excellent camera system.” I was stunned at the sheer disjunction in what the guy was saying.

Clearly, someone had lied, as no one had handed back my prescription to me (and I had not cancelled the prescription). In this case, the lie had staying power, for the medical provider who had written the prescription refused to reissue or revalidate it even when the pharmacist called to explain the situation. Even though Walmart had erroneously cancelled and lost my prescription, it was “my responsibility.” I was between a rock and a hard place, neither one being willing or even perhaps even capable of deviating from a rigid script. Not having a primary-care physician locally, I would have to go without until the end of my visit.

Speaking the next day with a pharmacist at a Walgreens after I tried again in vain by stopping by the offending hospital’s emergency room, I learned that it was indeed unusual for a prescription provider to refuse to revalidate a prescription that had been erroneously cancelled. I also gathered from that pharmacist that I had erred in supposing that the pharmacy at a Walmart would somehow be immune from the sort of incompetence that plagues the company at the store level.

That very evening, a Walmart truck-driver killed one comic and seriously injured Tracy Morgan and two other passengers on the New Jersey Turnpike after going without sleep for than 24 hours.[2] In response, a Walmart statement claimed that the employee had not violated any federal regulations. Nevertheless, police charged him with manslaughter and assault. Interestingly, Congress was at the time bowing to industry pressure by backing off proposed regulations that would have required companies like Walmart to see to it that their truck drivers are getting enough sleep. One might say that Walmart’s management is asleep behind the wheel, even amid claims of being fully alert.

[1] Anne D’Innocenzio, “Walmart Faces Shareholder Scrutiny at Annual Meeting,” The Associated Press, June 6, 2014.
[2] David Jones, “Truck Driver in Tracy Morgan Crash Had Not Slept in 24 Hours: Complaint,” The Huffington Post, June 9, 2014.