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Jim Kenyon: Crisis Communication at the Co-op

Knowing the way that the Co-op Food Stores react to employees who challenge top management, I was relieved to find that Laurel Soderholm still had a job last week.

Soderholm, 66, oversees the health and beauty aids department at the Lebanon Co-op. She’s been an employee of the Hanover-based Consumer Cooperative Society, which operates four grocery stores in the Upper Valley, for 15 years.

Last Sunday, Soderholm was among 100 or so people who attended a picnic at Storrs Pond in Hanover organized by Concerned About the Co-op, a grass-roots organization that has sprung up this summer. The picnic was a rally, of sorts, to show support for John Boutin and Dan King, longtime Co-op employees who were fired in June without being told why.

The Co-op’s disgraceful treatment of Boutin and King, along with management’s use of New Hampshire’s ironhanded “at will” employment laws to justify the firings, is well documented. With that in mind, I didn’t expect to hear a lot that was new last Sunday.

Then Soderholm approached the microphone to tell her story. Last November, her 41-year-old son, Ben, a 1991 Hanover High graduate, died unexpectedly at his home in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

When Soderholm returned to work a few days later, she met with her boss, Bob Kazakiewich, the manager of the Lebanon store. In earlier dealings, she said that Kazakiewich hadn’t been shy about discussing his personal religious beliefs.

At their meeting, Soderholm said Kazakiewich brought up religion when mentioning her son’s death. According to Soderholm, Kazakiewich said, “your son isn’t in heaven.”

Just how Kazakiewich would know this is a mystery to me, but that’s not really the point. Maybe it’s OK for supervisors to bring up religion at Hobby Lobby, but at the Co-op?

Flipping through the Co-op’s employment manual, I didn’t see anything that would prevent it. But it’s common sense to me. A boss shouldn’t inflict his or her religious beliefs on any employee, particularly a grieving one. It’s more than just unprofessional; it’s insensitive, and could be abusive.

“I had to hear that baloney on a regular basis,” Soderholm told the crowd.

With a former Co-op board member and vociferous supporter of the organization attending the picnic, I figured it wouldn’t be long before management got wind of Soderholm’s comments. I approached Soderholm and told her that I planned to write about her situation.

On Thursday, I called Kazakiewich to ask him about the “your son is not in heaven” comment that Soderholm had attributed to him.

He asked me to put questions in an email, which I did. The next day, he wrote that he didn’t want to “breach the confidences of private conversation but, in this case, I feel I must. I can assure you I said nothing of the sort to Mrs. Soderholm.”

Maybe not, but it would be an odd sort of story to invent and then tell at what amounted to a public event. Other workers have told me that Kazakiewich had brought up his religion with them as well. When I asked him about it, he declined to address the question.

Before being hired in 2012 to run the Co-op’s largest store, Kazakiewich spent 14 years at Wal-Mart, where he was a store manager. Co-op workers with whom I’ve talked aren’t convinced that someone with a Wal-Mart background is a good fit for a “cooperative” grocery store. Wal-Mart isn’t exactly known for its enlightened treatment of workers and the Co-op espouses very different values.

In March, I asked Co-op General Manager Terry Appleby about Kazakiewich’s hiring. “He wanted to work for us because he wanted to get away from that (Wal-Mart) culture, not because he wanted to bring it here,” said Appleby.

Cindy Danner, another Lebanon Co-op employee who spoke at the picnic, said it took guts for Soderholm to tell her story. “I sometimes think that the only thing that’s going to save us is a union,” said Danner. “We need someone to protect us.”

Outspoken Co-op workers have reason to be scared for their jobs. As Boutin and King can attest, Co-op management doesn’t take criticism lightly. They had talked in store meetings about management’s overbearing tactics and were exploring whether the Co-op’s rank-and-file workers should attempt to unionize.

On June 13, Boutin had just started work in the cheese department, where he’d been customers’ go-to-guy for a decade, when Kazakiewich came up and put his arm around him. He ushered Boutin, 61, to his office, where Tony White, the Co-op’s director of operations, was waiting. White informed Boutin that the Co-op was exercising its right as an at-will employer to dismiss him without giving a reason.

Shortly thereafter, King, 56, got the same treatment. Kazakiewich escorted both men through the store and out the door. Said Boutin, “They wanted to send a message to the staff that this is what happens when you speak up.” If so, Soderholm had the courage to disregard it.

I didn’t spot any Co-op executives or current board members at the picnic, which is understandable. The have plenty on their plates already.

At Wednesday’s four-hour board meeting, Charles Bauer, the Co-op’s labor lawyer from Concord, sat in the front row. When a labor lawyer dressed in a suit is hanging around, maybe not all is well with management-worker relations. Those guys don’t work cheap.

The Co-op has also brought in an out-of-town public relations consultant. Rich Killion, of Elevare Communications in Concord, is probably best known for his work with Republican candidates, including Mitt Romney. On his company’s website, Killion says that one of his specialities is “crisis communications.”

The way I look at it, if this is a crisis, management made it one.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com .