Hey Urban Outfitters, Stop Treating Employees Like They Won the Cool-Job Lottery

Urban asked employees to work for free, said it would be fun.


Urban Outfitters — known for its hipster-chic clothes and dorm-room-esque decor — made news for all the wrong reasons last week.

Urban sent a message to salaried employees asking for “weekend volunteers” to work at its fulfillment center in Gap, Pa. to help deal with the center’s busiest month to date. But rather than offering employees extra cash to trek out to rural Pennsylvania and pack boxes, the company framed the outing as a “team building activity.” The entire letter was published in this Gawker story.

Although Urban — a $3.3 billion company that’s No. 701 on the Fortune 1000 list — has plenty of money to hire the workers necessary to deal with fulfillment center demand, the company asked salaried folks to do the job of packing and shipping boxes. Call it team building all you want, but it’s a job. If they were packing boxes of food for needy families, it’d be a different story.

By framing the outing as team-building, Urban makes it very difficult for employees to say “no.” How could you miss a team-building exercise? Are you not a team player who thinks company first? Don’t you realize there are plenty of people who would love a job at Urban?

In a response to Gawker, the company said it “received a tremendous response” and got plenty of workers to volunteer, including many in senior management. (An Urban spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

But with senior managers working for free over the weekend, how could lower-level employees say no? Were they basically “voluntold” to work this weekend? It certainly looks better for a lower-level worker if a senior manager sees them going the extra mile to help out at the fulfillment center. Oh, you wanted to spend the weekend taking care of your kids, spending time with family or just decompressing from a tough work week? Sure looks like the company needed you, and you didn’t answer the call.

Urban also said in its response that hourly workers offered to volunteer at the center, but the company declined in order to “ensure full compliance with all applicable labor laws and regulations.” It also offered workers transportation to the fulfillment center if needed.

Another telling incident happened last week. Urban stopped its controversial policy of on-call scheduling where retail staff members are forced to remain on-call in case a store gets busy — making it difficult to schedule activities in their off time and forcing some to find child care or elder care with very little notice. But as far as we know, the company only stopped the policy in New York state, after Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman made a huge, public stink about it. Why not stop the practice nationwide? Or in your hometown of Philadelphia? Does it really take an elected official’s actions to get the company to take steps toward treating employees better?

Hey Urban, just because you’re a cool company with nationally known brands like Anthropologie and Free People, doesn’t mean you can treat employees like they won the cool-job lottery. Professional sports teams tend to do the same thing with entry-level workers. Hey, you might have to wear a suit every day, work crazy hours for next to nothing, but you can tell your friends you work at a professional sports franchise. Hooray! Now good luck paying your rent, you’ll figure it out.

Sure, it’s easy for Urban to attract top talent because it’s basically the only major fashion brand that calls Philadelphia home. But the company should still respect its employees enough to pay them for working weekends and not force them to be on-call to fold clothes and work the cash register at its stores.

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