A Case of Levi Strauss

“Bill” worked in a nine person group at Levi Strauss in San Francisco. Bill had been diagnosed with AIDS, but he had not told any of his co-workers. After he was hospitalized for the first time, however, he decided to discuss his condition with his manager, and the manager explained the situation to Bill’s co-workers.

It was fortunate that Bill was working for a company like Levi, recognized time and again for its commitment to diversity and non-discrimination. In fact, several years earlier, even before Bill’s diagnosis, the company had already conducted mandatory AIDS education. After his diagnosis, the training was conducted again, this time to deal not with hypotheticals but with the real life situation.

The initial step of this training involved communication. The workers met with a facilitator and shared their reactions to the news. A pregnant woman was concerned about her baby. Another man was angry; he felt that Bill had an obligation to inform his co-workers when he was diagnosed, since there was much contact between them – for example, they might have shared the same glass at parties. Overall, the experience proved cleansing for the group, because they all were encouraged to share their feelings, without fear of being silenced or criticized. After the group worked through the concerns of the members, the meetings stopped, although the one co-worker who was angered by not being informed earlier was referred for individual counseling and HIV testing.

The next step was for the workers to determine how to redistribute the workload. The group supported Bill by enabling him to remain productive for as long as he could. The rest of the group took on extra work, and shifted assignments to allow him to work at home when it became. According to Yvonne Ellison-Sandler, corporate manager for health promotion, they worked with him all the way until the day he died, and went to the funeral together as a department… It was such an incredible process to observe, and it spoke to the power of dealing with this stuff up front.

Bill’s experience reflects the company’s culture and philosophy. Levi Strauss is committed to its people. We have a vision in human resources that employees’ lives are just as important as the quality of the product.

The challenge for Levi Strauss lay in reviving the loyalty and trust that had been damaged. To this end, a group of executives met off-site to discuss the conflict between economic realities and historical paternalism. They then moved on to consider what values could be preserved, and what else Levi Strauss should for. The result: a new mission statement, accompanied by the Levi Strauss Aspiration Statement, to guide the company and its managers and employees:

Management support has proved crucial to the success of the new Levi Strauss philosophy, for it has emphasized to employees that their work is not just getting pants out of the door, that it also includes the articulated values. Management’s walking the talk sends the message to employees to take ownership themselves. To create an environment that supports teamwork and trust, you can’t just talk about it, said Thompson. Fundamentally, it requires a personal commitment. Bob Haas can’t do it by himself. The executives can’t do it by themselves. Each employee has to step up and put a stake in the ground.

The culture at Levi Strauss that values equality and non-discrimination extends beyond the employees to community stakeholders as well. For example, in 1991, when the company learned that the Boy Scouts’ parent organization excludes homosexuals and requires its members to recite an oath to God, Levi Strauss discontinued its support, even though it had given $200,000 to local scouts during the previous five years. Representatives unsuccessfully attempted to organize a boycott in California, but Levi Strauss remained committed to its corporate policy and values.

With regard to its relationship with employees, Levi Strauss maintains numerous programs that facilitate diversity in the workplace. For example, it is one of the few companies that offer flexible working arrangements to accommodate employees with family responsibilities. In addition, it has a widely recognized policy of offering medical coverage to employees’ sexual partners, regardless of their gender. While many employers offer medical coverage to employees’ heterosexual partners, few recognize homosexual Partners.

The result at Levi Strauss is a multicultural environment that values its employees. According to Haas, often in companies there is a gap between the articulated values and what the working environment is actually like. The more you can narrow that gap, said Haas, the more people’s energies can be released toward company purposes. Levi Strauss has already taken great strides toward narrowing the gap, and more can be anticipated in the future.

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