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Target responds to disgruntled employee

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A bitter online tirade about Target's struggles from someone identified as a company employee is creating quite a stir.

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Last week, The Gawker website posted a rambling critique from someone the site identified as a "current mid-level employee at Target's headquarters." The 1,200 word rant chastised Target for a wide range of alleged wrongs -- from being stingy with vacation time to eroding employee productivity by having the troops spend too much time in meetings and company and volunteer events.

 

The commentary said Target's culture is very passive aggressive. "They expect you to conform to them, to be 'Targetized' If you aren't super bubbly, super social and passive aggressive, you get told that you're a problem," the employee said.

In it, the critic said the departure of former CEO Greg Steinhafel was a good start but the entire executive team needs to go -- with the exception of chief marketing officer Jeff Jones.

The diatribe prompted Jones to make an extraordinary public response, which itself is creating quite a buzz.

In an e-mail to employees at Target's headquarters and then publicly posting the missive on LinkedIn, Jones said the truth hurts and Target has suffered a lot lately.

He noted the massive theft of customer data the company endured just before Christmas, when cyber crooks made off with payment card numbers and personal information for tens of millions of Target customers.

Earlier this month Steinhafel stepped down, in the wake of the data breach, Target's huge losses in Canada and lackluster performance of late in the United States.

Jones wrote that he was angry when he read the employee's post and other online comments and wondered why "any team member would say what they said."

But he said, "much of what they are saying is true." With hard work, he said Target can turn itself around. Still, he said that the gist of conversations he's had with the company's marketing leaders is, "If you are too tired or too cynical for this work, please leave."

Target said Jones was not available for comment but his message has been well-received by employees. Observers of the company also took notice.

Veteran crisis management expert James Lukaszewski was surprised that Jones responded to the employee's criticism.

Lukaszewski said Jones' response directs attention to Gawker and other material that criticizes and sometimes mocks the retailer.

"He was the only person named in this document," Lukaszewski said. "And he was actually named in a very positive way. The writer recommended everybody be fired at the top, except him. I think he just saw his name and he got mad."

Communications and crisis management consultant Jon Austin said Jones' response doesn't mesh with Target's history of deliberate, cautious responses when it comes to the company's brand and business affairs.

Austin said it's generally prudent for companies to ignore most criticisms leveled at them on the Internet. But Austin said Jones' action could be a good move.

"If he was trying to talk to the Target employees in a way that would get their attention and provoke a discussion and send the meta-message of a company that's open and willing to have discussion like this out in public, maybe that's an interesting tactic," Austin said.

But Austin says there's another way to look at the response: Jones took Gawker's bait.

"Gawker lives with the hope that somebody will take notice of whatever they posted that day and start a conversation," Austin said. "And they're really, really good at provoking those things."

Retail consultant Carol Spieckerman said Jones' made a number of good points.

"I think he was messaging that some of this criticism shouldn't just be thrown out, that there might be some gems of value there that they need to address and that might be true," she said.

But Spieckerman said Jones should not have let his remarks be seen as a response to the Gawker post.

"He could have accomplished the same benefit through a pro-active post rather than doing it in response to an anonymous, disgruntled employee's rant," she said.

Despite the surprisingly public outburst from a Target executive, one thing remains hidden inside the company -- whether Jones is a candidate to become CEO -- and whether his actions will help or hurt his chances of winning the top job.

The people who run Gawker likely are happy with how things have shaken out. Today, the website posted an item titled, "Target's Biggest Challenge: Employees Complaining to Gawker."

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