Every other week, I make a Trader Joe's run on the way back from the beach. One recent visit in particular really got me thinking.
As I neared the cashier that day, she flashed a big beautiful smile and called out, "Hi! It's so good to see you again!"
"Well, sister, it's good to see you as well!" I responded.
Then, I asked her about something I had heard before: "I'm a writer and have been examining high-performance cultures. Is it true that Trader Joe's has an average employee tenure of 18 years?"
"Those are the young people," she replied. "I've been here for twenty years."
"You love it?" I asked.
"I love working here!" she replied.
"What is so special about this place?" I asked.
Her smile widened: "It's like this. Everyone takes care of everyone else. Everyone pitches in. Our general manager doesn't pull rank on us. The other day, I came in and he was scrubbing the bathroom clean. He did it because he got here first. You know, when everyone works at the same level, it's easier to be a team."
This down-to-earth, ego-free approach works. The generosity that Trader Joe's extends to its workers cascades directly out to the customers.
Why Does Trader Joe's Produce an 18-Year Tenure?
The power of Trader Joe's kind and democratic culture was recently captured in an article from Spoon University by Katherine Baker. Baker had earned a graduate degree in behavioral science and landed a good job in the field only to discover it made her feel stressed and emotional all of the time. She felt she had lost the game when it came to the "adulting thing."
While shopping at Trader Joe's one day, Baker noticed that it seemed like the people who worked there had more fun at their jobs than she had at hers. So, she applied for a job – and when she got one, she quit her previous job as a therapist to work full-time at Trader Joe's.
One night, after Baker had been working at Trader Joe's for a while, her sister asked if she liked her job. Surprised with herself, Baker responded, "I think I do!"
It was a turning point. Baker writes,
"I realized I need to chase things that matter to me, things I'm passionate about. I ended up finally coming to terms with the fact that I didn't want to go to med school and that I wanted to pursue nutrition and food science (which I am working on now), and I like to think that working at Trader Joe's helped me see the light and value in doing things that you enjoy. ...
"I guess what I'm saying is that I found myself while mopping floors, preparing hummus samples, and putting jars of cookie butter on the shelf. I remembered who I was, got in touch with what I wanted in life, and learned how effing important it is to follow your dreams – or at the very least, find the things in life that make you happy and unapologetically pursue them."
About 300 yards from my home is the neighborhood Vons, where many of the cashiers don't look you in the eye because they are in their own unhappy trances. The mood is so thoroughly "it's just a job" that I sometimes come home with the beginnings of a facial tick.
On the other hand, grocery stores such as Trader Joe's and Publix – one of Fortune's "100 Best Places to Work" – prove that great cultures translate to great customer service. They also prove that democratic cultures are not limited to sophisticated white-collar organizations. Great employers benefit all of us, and they can become environments to which someone can go to reclaim their life.
David Harder is the founder of Inspired Work.