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Column: We Deserve to Know Why the Co-op Fired Us

Hanover Co-op General Manager Terry Appleby wrote a recent op-ed article for the Valley News in which he described the many attributes of the Hanover Co-op, including the Co-op’s purported support for employee rights to seek to form a union and to offer constructive criticism to management. However, the Co-op chooses to use the device known as “termination at will” by which any employee, like us, can be fired for no reason at all and without any advance notice. So long as the Co-op chooses to use this anti-employee tool against its employees, any claim of support for employee rights is, at best, disingenuous. Nothing is more intimidating to employees than to know that they can be fired without notice and without being given a reason.

In such a work environment every employee will be reluctant to offer criticism or even suggestions to management, or to look into unions, because any action that might be seen by management as contrary to what management does or wants could trigger a “termination at will.” Such a termination, while legal, has no place in an organization that purports to stand for the principles espoused by the Co-op. What happened to us is a stark example of how “termination at will” demoralizes and intimidates employees.

On the morning of Friday, June 13, each of us was separately asked to meet with the store manager in his office. In each instance, the store manager led us to his office without any hint of what was to come. Upon entering the office, we saw the chief operating officer for the Co-op, Tony White, and the professional development manager.

White stated, without any word of introduction, “The Co-op is exercising its right under New Hampshire law for ‘at will’ employees to terminate your employment.” We had been given no verbal or written warning that our employment was going to be terminated. There had been no incident at work that preceded our termination.

We each responded to the above statement by asking why we were being terminated. In response, White again stated: “The Co-op is exercising its right under New Hampshire law for ‘at will’ employees to terminate your employment.” Each of us asked again why we were being terminated. Again, White responded, “The Co-op is exercising its right under New Hampshire law for ‘at will’ employees to terminate your employment.” No further discussion took place, and no one else spoke. That was it. Fired without explanation or cause after more than 11 years of service. No notice, no warning, and no exit interview. Why were we fired in the morning and not at the end of our shifts? We don’t know.

Our further requests for a reason for our termination produced only the same scripted response. The store manager escorted us from the room to gather our personal belongings, and then walked each of us out of the store in view of other employees. Why we were fired at all remains a mystery, but one thing is clear. By firing us without reason or notice and escorting us out of the store in front of other employees, management was sending a very strong message: “Watch your step, or this could happen to you.”

Terry Appleby’s claim that he could not provide an explanation for why we were fired without breaching confidentiality is intentionally misleading. There is no rule of confidentiality that prevents Co-op managers from telling us, the employees being fired, why we are being fired. We are entitled to know the reason for our firing.

We were not treated with the respect, transparency and fairness that we believed to be a part of our working conditions at the Co-op. Each of us has, over the course of many years, appealed to management to improve the workplace for all employees at the Co-op. Our efforts were not received kindly, but we never overstepped our bounds as employees. We always believed that our efforts were consistent with the spirit and ethic of the Hanover Co-op. When our complaints to management went unheeded, we did consider other options, including the possibility of forming a union, and we did have preliminary meetings and discussions with union representatives well away from the Co-op property and on our own time.

We believe that those employed by the Co-op should only lose their jobs for “just cause” reasons. If that is not what the Co-op bylaws and employee handbook require, then the board and the membership should take all necessary steps to address that issue. “No cause” firings are a tool of intimidation that has no place at the Hanover Food Co-op.

We appreciate the outpouring of concern expressed by Co-op members over our firings. We call on the Co-op board to investigate our firings. We ask to be reinstated. The board should confirm that Co-op employees will not be treated arbitrarily and will not be terminated without just cause after due and fair warning. We also ask the board to address the concerns we have raised with management.

John Boutin and Dan King worked at the Co-op Food Store in Lebanon.