The CEO of REI went on Reddit and said to ask him anything. Lots of disgruntled employees obliged

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This post has been updated.

This is the story of a CEO who went on Reddit to take part in an “Ask Me Anything” Q&A and proved why it can be a terrible idea for CEOs to go on Reddit to take part in an “Ask Me Anything” Q&A.

Only this story might actually have a shot at ending well.

Jerry Stritzke, CEO of the outdoor recreation retailer REI, got a lot of publicity—the positive kind—when he announced in October that all 143 of REI’s stores will be closed for Black Friday, with all staff receiving a paid day off. As most Americans (and now British shoppers) know, employees of major retailers typically work long hours the day after Thanksgiving. Any time they get a day off on the US’ most-hyped shopping day of the year, it’s worth noting, and can even lead to an increase in holiday sales for the company.

In fact, REI generally has a good reputation, year-round, for being pleasant and green and nature-y. The company is a co-op that’s jointly owned by customers who purchase memberships. But selling these memberships, as we’ll see, is the cause of much discontent among REI employees.

On Nov. 11, Stritzke took part in a Reddit AMA—mostly to brag about the Black Friday announcement. Here’s Stritzke, looking jovial, proving his identity before answering questions:

How things would soon change.

He started off his post with a joke, perhaps trying to seem hip for the Reddit crowd:

I have my team here helping me answer questions, so go easy on me. I’m new to reddit and have already learned the hard way that /r/Trees isn’t about the great outdoors.

(/r/Trees is the most popular marijuana-related subreddit.)

After answering a few innocuous questions from Reddit users about REI and the great outdoors, the good stuff started rolling in. Out of the 4,585 comments on the post, at least several hundred were from current or former employees all over the United States who wished to voice their displeasure directly to the head honcho.

Many of the complaints centered around the pressure to sell memberships to customers. According to these anonymous Reddit users, the company was singularly focused on that goal, at the expense of, well, pretty much everything else. The comment in the thread that has garnered the most thumbs-up—it currently has 6,690 upvotes—was from Reddit user annonemp:

Over the course of a year, I received top marks in my check ins, was eventually cross trained in every department, helped out with inventory preparations, stayed overnight to assist with store moves, and trained new batches employees in multiple departments. For a brief time my membership sales stagnated, but my quality of service and product knowledge continued to excel. It was like somebody flipped a switch. I was denied a promotion because I did not sell enough memberships. I had my hours cut from 30 hours a week to less than 10 because I did not sell enough memberships. Additionally, I was not allowed to pick up shifts from people that didn’t want to work because I did not sell enough memberships. Similar things happened to some of my most authentically qualified co-workers as well. Finally, after moving across the country with the assurance of a transfer, I was told by the store in the new city that I did not sell enough memberships and therefore they did not have any room on the payroll for me. I was not even given the courtesy of an interview with the store to assess any of my other skills, just a brief email wishing me good luck. I lost my health insurance, a source of much needed income, and any potential co-worker friends in a new city where I knew no one. It seems that management would rather take on the expense of hiring and training someone new than risk a lower membership conversion rate from a reliable and cross-trained employee. I liked my job and hope this is an isolated incident, but my experience involves two stores of very different sizes in two very different cities.

The incident was anything but isolated. A sampling:

How many memberships you sell is the ONLY metric by which you will ultimately be measured. Product knowledge, customer service skills, overall work ethic are worth ZERO if you are not selling x number of memberships per shift, (which was spelled out very clearly by management on a regular basis, including being told that any customer complaints about an employee being overly aggressive in trying to promote the membership would result in said employee being rewarded in terms of scheduling/perks) and if you are placed in a department with less than optimal customer facing time it will not be factored in. Just hope that you get some shifts working the registers as opposed to cleaning out the changing rooms or else you’re likely to be sacked, regardless of how much positive feedback you get from management. As an outdoorsy person with a successful retail management background, working at REI, which regularly makes the top 20 “Best Places to Work” was one of the most profoundly disappointing experiences of my life.

Same story over here. I worked for the co-op for ten years was an Anderson award winner and was slowly pushed out because my membership sales did not meet expectations while my product knowledge and outdoor experience continued to grow.

I also want Jerry to explain to my son why he had to beg for more hours on the schedule at the same time that they were hiring on more and more people. They were giving a current and trained employee ONE day a week while hiring newbies.

As a former employee, I too agree that working for REI was a huge life mistake. Incredibly upsetting and disappointing for many reasons I can’t share here[…]I’ve watched a mass exodus of talented, bright, and inspiring employees leave REI over the past few years. And when confronted about these issues, they were swept under the rug[…]REI wants the best of the best to work for them, but when new employees get there, they are micromanaged by a group of leaders who have been literally showing up to the office and hanging out for 20 years. Many people are then micromanaged out of the company. Hiring smart people and then not letting them do there job is a terrible thing anyone in leadership could do. Pretending to be something you’re not is even worse.

Stritzke did not address the vast majority of these complaints. He did, however, respond to annonemp’s comment with this:

Hi /u/annonemp, My team gave me a heads up that I missed an important question earlier so I’m jumping back on quickly to acknowledge that I’ve seen it. First of all, I promise I wasn’t avoiding your question. This was my first AMA and I covered as many questions as I could (actually spent twice as long as I had planned). I logged off earlier and just saw this. It’s late here in Seattle so I appreciate your understanding.

I’m sorry to read about your experience. Our members are important, but your experience really doesn’t sound usual so I want to look into this more. I’ll get back on in the morning and provide a more in-depth answer about our membership sales, but I didn’t want you to think I was ignoring you.

As promised, Stritzke indeed returned to give a more elaborate response:

Annonemp – First, I want to reiterate that I wasn’t avoiding your question. This was my first AMA and I answered as many questions as I could in the time I was online – clearly the conversation kept on after that.

I’m certainly concerned about your experience and to hear others express the same. Our members and customers are our first priority and providing them with knowledgeable insights is the most important thing we do. I believe that this expertise and a shared passion for the outdoors are our overwhelming strengths as an organization and am very proud of the men and women wearing green vests in our stores.

I have to admit the emphasis on membership sales was a surprise to me when I joined the co-op two years ago. Given that I was new, I wanted to have a better understanding of the co-op structure and some of the whys behind our actions. There is no doubt that the co-op structure is focused on the concept of membership and there is long institutional memory reinforcing the idea that we should encourage as many people to join the co-op as possible – we believe in the mission and purpose of the co-op.

Having said that, we may have lost sight of the bigger picture. The truth is that we should have been doing a better job sharing what makes the co-op special. We should have a “pull” model (people want to join because they believe in our mission and they love the experience), not a “push” model when it comes to the co-op. And the most important thing is that our employees in our stores know that their skill, deep outdoor knowledge and customer service are the things that matter above everything. To be clear, that is how our people should be measured.

I feel like your story represents a measure of individual performance taken to an extreme and I am committed to understanding what happened. I appreciate you sharing your story and I assure you that we are looking into how we are using this measure. Good conversation.

Certainly Stritzke deserves some credit for making himself available to customers and employees, even if, as many of the commenters suspected, it was all just a stunt orchestrated by his PR team. But this is what happens when a person in power is put in front of thousands of anonymous denizens of the internet. Their complaints can’t all be verified, but given that they all essentially say the same thing, it looks like Stritzke indeed has a problem to address within his company—and not just for the sake of employee morale. Here’s another comment that turned up in the thread:

Just gonna throw this out there, probably gonna get buried but, seeing an AMA like this makes me never want to shop at REI.

Update: An REI spokesperson provided this statement by Stritzke to Quartz:

I enjoyed being on Reddit. It’s an incredibly passionate and engaged community. I value and encourage transparency from the people who work with me and the people whose lives we touch. We do a huge number of things at REI to engage with employees and drive transparency and so discussing things like what it means to be a membership organization are normal practice. That’s vital because our members are actually the owners of REI.

About the Reddit thread specifically – this is a completely legitimate conversation (how we invite people to join the co-op and how we measure employee performance). It’s an issue we’re currently focused on and so I plan to dig into the question more deeply. We will have a collective conversation about this issue. This will include conversations in our stores. If I’m not happy with what we find, we’ll make a change.

Bottom line, though, an open and transparent conversation is something CEOs should not be afraid of. I, for one, welcome it.