Workplace culture of happiness and leadership: How Whole Foods retains entry-level employees

Posted November 17, 2017 by


One of the core values at Whole Foods Market is “team member happiness.” Making team members happy doesn’t happen by accident. Melissa Simpson, Talent Acquisition Manager, spoke with us about how their workplace culture is designed to keep employees engaged and to develop them into leaders.

Melissa Simpson will be joining other leaders in HR, talent acquisition and university relations at the College Recruiting Bootcamp on December 15. Simpson has deep insight into filling and moving the pipeline from entry-level to leadership, and we look forward to hearing more of her thoughts and questions at the event! To join us and hear what strategies and tactics you might not have considered yet to attract and retain entry-level talent, register for the bootcamp here.

Authentic and trusting workplace culture

Design a work culture to make employees happyThe key to retaining entry-level employees at Whole Foods is the intentional workplace culture of authenticity and trust. “You get to bring your authentic self to work every day,” says Simpson. “You learn how to be accountable, you get to make mistakes.” When employees learn what lies ahead, whether that is positive or negative, they build trust with their employer. That trust only strengthens when employees understand that their team will work through issues together, and that no problem is one person’s fault.

At Whole Foods, says Simpson, they listen to team members when they “tell us why things should be done a different way.” If the suggestion makes sense, “we’ll try it.” The key to turning that into authenticity and trust, however, is to never point fingers if the idea fails. The organic supermarket adopts a team approach to idea generation and problem solving. When problems arise, “we’ll all learn from it, but we won’t point fingers.”

You won’t see a Whole Foods team member in a uniform because they don’t have any. They do have expectations around appropriateness, but employees can show their tattoos, or “wear their purple hair” to work. Simpson stressed how much they want employees to appreciate accountability as a good thing, not a scary thing. Their culture is one of “trying”, not fear.

Along with authenticity comes transparency. For an employer to build trust with its employees, it must trust them to handle information about what lies ahead, whether it’s positive or negative. At Whole Foods, Simpson says their employees know that come what may, their team will work through it together.

Related: Work engagement: Millennial expectations of inclusion and concrete tips for managers

Culture of leadership development retains entry-level

At Whole Foods, Simpson says, “If you are looking to be a leader, you will become a leader.” They have tiered leadership training programs for each rung of their ladder. Any entry-level employee who wishes, can participate in the program to become an Associate Team Leader. Any Associate Team Leader can get trained to become a Team Leader, and so on, up to the Store Manager level.

We have team members who started at an entry-level and now 15 years later they are directing at a regional level.

The program includes classes and mentorships that train employees to take on more leadership and accountability. Simpson says the leadership opportunities are there for everyone, and there is always enough internal interest in the program. For the most part, aside from people who leave the program to finish school or take care of other needs, everyone who participates in the program moves up to the next level.

Keeping people happy at work retains entry-level

Happy employees work harderRetaining millennials in any industry can be a challenge, but especially in retail. The cost of living has gone up in many places, especially in metro areas popular among young professionals. “Millennials see a retail position as a stepping stone while they’re in college,” says Simpson, and then they often move into a different field when they graduate. She knows it used to be different, when employees were loyal for longer periods of time.

That kind of tenure is simply less common across the workforce overall, and Whole Foods relies on its workplace culture to retain entry-level employees. They have “employee happiness embedded in their mission, alongside delighting customers. You cannot achieve either without both.  It is important to have the company’s core values published and talked about.  This in turn helps candidates gauge whether they would be a good culture fit before they even apply. Most candidates are looking to work for a company that has the same belief system and values that they do.”

Upkeeping the core value of “team member happiness” takes work. Simpson says they keep their ears to the ground to hear what team members want to learn on the job. They want to hear what keeps them ticking. Most employers conduct satisfaction surveys, but Whole Foods takes one critical action after those surveys. When employees provide reasonable ideas through the survey, they move forward on them. For ideas that aren’t reasonable or go against company policy—this is the key point—they explain exactly why they won’t work at that moment. Employers may think they are communicating well, but being transparent about why the company won’t pursue an employee’s idea can go a long way to build loyalty and trust.

Hiring for fit

Recruiters love candidates who appear to fit the organizational culture. That kind of match seems wise, but the risk of hiring for fit is ending up with a homogenous team filled with people who all think alike. If everyone fits the mold perfectly, the business loses out on diversity, creativity and innovation.

At Whole Foods, Simpson says they hire for fit by being transparent. Candidates know what they’re getting into. “During the interview process, we give you tidbits about the day-in-the-life for the position you’re interested in. This allows candidates to screen themselves in or out.” She gave one example: anyone being considered for a cake decorating job will hear from their interviewer that at the end of the day, they will be covered in flour.

Their interview process attempts to match a candidate’s values with company values, and it is truly a two-way street. “Ensuring that a candidate is a good fit with Whole Foods is just as important as ensuring that Whole Foods is a good fit for the candidate. They are also interviewing us to ensure our values are aligned with their own.”

About the College Recruiting Bootcamp

College Recruiting BootcampIf you are faced with the challenges of hiring for entry-level talent at scale, increasing diversity, improving your candidate pool, and using technology that improves outcomes—join these conversations at the College Recruiting Bootcamp. It will be hosted by Intuit at their headquarters in Mountain View, CA on December 15, 2017.

The attendees will be your fellow leaders in talent acquisition, HR and university relations. This is College Recruiter’s 11th bootcamp, and like all the others, we are planning for the day to be highly interactive, collegial and informative. You’ll hear about the strategies and tactics being used today by your competitors. Learn more details and buy tickets at

Talent acquisition manager Melissa SimpsonAbout Melissa Simpson, M.S.: Melissa has 10 years of connecting talent with opportunity from entry level to executive level She is an outside-the-box thinker who creates Whole Foods’ strategy for high volume hiring. She currently recruits for 45 stores, mostly in Northern California, which employ 9600 people. She is responsible for managing the full cycle recruitment process from initial screening, creating behavioral based interviews, negotiating and extending employment offers.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted in Advice for Employers and Recruiters | Tagged Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,