It’s not easy for Walmart employees to get information about company policies. The giant retailer does not provide its workers with employee handbooks or copies of personnel policies, and even if it did, its policies are constantly changing. While a small amount of policy information is available to associates who log onto the WalmartOne app and website, most employee policies are only available in an intranet, known as “the wire,” inside the company. Workers needing information on Walmart’s policies have to access the wire when they’re logged in at work, on a computer that’s typically located in or near a manager’s office—a situation that can be less than ideal. For example, a Walmart worker being sexually harassed may complain to her manager, but if the manager isn’t addressing the issue, going into his office to use the intranet to figure out what to do next can be a little bit awkward.
The worker group Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) has taken a stab at liberating this internal information through an app of its own called WorkIt. “We’ve been doing this work for a number of years and have really seen the tremendous economic insecurity and instability that people in low-wage jobs, and people working at Walmart are facing every day, and the fact that people are increasingly going to social media to look for and find help and support around the daily challenges they’re facing at work,” said Andrea Dehlendorf, co-director of OUR Walmart. “Levels of mobile adoption are incredibly high, so we decided to build our own platform to build a service that we see people needing, which is peer support around workplace challenges,” she said.
The app lets users ask questions on company policies or their legal rights. It uses IBM Watson AI technology and peer experts, comprised of current or former Walmart employees who volunteer their time to look up answers and train the AI bot.
The app also has a news area, a community-wide chat about issues users want to discuss with each other, and an area that operates more like a message board where users can discuss and organize around topics.
WorkIt is meant to be a less confusing way of accessing information than, say, Facebook and Reddit. “We realized that the conversations are chaotic, they’re disorganized, and it’s very difficult to get the right answer,” said Dehlendorf. While Walmart workers can and do post questions on Facebook to try to figure out their rights when they’re, say, at the hospital and are worried about getting fired for taking sick leave, they might get ten different and sometimes contradictory answers, which can be very confusing.
“The reason that this is a particular challenge at Walmart is that they really systematically keep information about people’s rights and benefits and the policies that govern the workplace inaccessible to people,” said Dehlendorf.
In fact, Walmart appears to be attempting to keep workers from downloading the WorkIt app. An internal memo obtained by Motherboard included a script in which employees were warned about WorkIt collecting their location and personal contact information, and Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg echoed the sentiment in an emailed statement published in the Wall Street Journal. (OUR Walmart’s privacy statement is available on its website.)
“This is a very busy time of year for our associates and they are receiving a lot of information from a lot of different sources. While they are focused on delivering a great holiday experience for our customers, we want to make sure they know this app is not affiliated with Walmart,” Walmart spokesman Blake Jackson said in an emailed statement. “Our associated already have anytime-access online to the company’s most current and accurate Paid Time Off policies. There is no way to know if the details this group is pushing are correct.”
According to permission details for each app as posted on the Google Play Store, the WalmartOne app requires the exact same permissions as the WorkIt app, though the Walmart-branded app is also capable of accessing identity and contacts to find accounts on the device, something the WorkIt app doesn’t do.
In addition to logistical difficulty accessing the Wire, many Walmart workers find looking up information on the intranet overwhelmingly complicated. The WorkIt app is meant to be more accessible, and if Watson can’t answer a question, it’ll delegate it to one of the volunteer peer experts. “This isn’t just about access to policy, this is about access to policy, legal rights, advice, and community, and that’s what WorkIt really does,” says OUR Walmart co-director Dan Schlademan.
The app is currently available on Android, and will soon be released on iOS. OUR Walmart is also working on making the information available via text or other messaging tools so that it’s accessible to workers who don’t have smartphones.