U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois have since put pressure on Walgreens to revise that policy to ensure customers’ privacy is respected. The senators sent a letter to Brewer in late July and asked for a meeting.
Protecting customer privacy is a challenge, experts say. Workers who don’t want to complete a sale must be trained to quickly and discreetly hand off that sale to a co-worker who will finish the transaction without missing a beat and without drawing attention. The maneuver should be as seamless as when an underage grocery store cashier calls an older colleague to ring up an alcohol sale.
Walgreens should be well-versed in managing customer privacy, particularly after the onslaught of demand and long lines it worked through during the initial rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines, experts say. But ratcheted-up emotions around the abortion issue have gotten in the way. Consumer brands increasingly confront political and social issues in their business, and success or failure in handling them comes down to proper employee training.
“It’s really important to remind employees, ‘We’re not a red company or a blue company, we’re a company that serves our community,’ ” says Dennis Culloton, CEO and president of Culloton + Bauer Luce, a public affairs firm specializing in crisis communications and reputation management. “Everyone needs to understand that walking in.”
Consistency is key, too, and Walgreens’ policy seems “pretty loosey goosey,” says Dan Cotter, a Chicago attorney at Howard & Howard. If a worker decides they are morally opposed to selling a product to someone who is in a legally protected group, it could lead to discrimination lawsuits.
“Any of this stuff has to be consistently applied so they’re not triggering discriminatory behavior,” he says. “If Walgreens doesn’t train for that, I think that’s the real risk.”
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But executing closely choreographed handoffs at the cash register will be difficult at a time when stores are often short-handed due to a shortage of workers across the economy. A lack of staff has forced some Walgreens outlets to close early. If only two people are working in a given store at a given time, discreetly summoning a co-worker to complete a sale could be difficult.
Inevitably, Walgreens will find itself in this situation again, says Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Brewer must also prepare shareholders for the possibility of Walgreens ending up in a firestorm. She needs to show the company isn’t “floundering around” but is anticipating such a reaction and has a plan.
“Being a healthcare company from 2022 on puts you in the center of social political battles,” Gordon says. “Two years ago, you could be criticized for being too expensive or for not having your locations in healthcare deserts, and all of that’s still true. But now you’re in the middle of one of the most highly charged social battles the country faces.”
This story first appeared in our sister publication, Crain's Chicago Business.