Culture Through Compliance

REI’s Jolene Wall is redefining how the apparel and sporting goods giant communicates with and trains employees on its standard of ethics

In 2017, Seattle-based outdoor gear and apparel retailer REI broke records with $2.62 billion in sales. The growth, coupled with the rapidly changing retail landscape, pushed the business in early 2018 to pause and reflect on the culture of the co-op and reframe its values to clearly identify who REI is and what the company stands for, taking the best of what the company has been and the best of what is to come. Nearly a year later, its leadership team formally presented a redefined set of values in action.

“This is a really big moment for the company because we haven’t done a values refresh in at least the eleven years that I’ve been with the co-op,” Deputy General Counsel Jolene Wall says. “Our new set of value statements, titled ‘The Co-op Way,’ isn’t a big shift, but it reframes what the company stands for clearly and concisely and is action driven.”

Jolene Wall, Deputy General Counsel, REI Photo by Michelle Pritchow

When Wall started with the company, communicating its standards across a smaller staff largely confined to the Northwest was easier. Expansion into the Midwest and the East Coast, though, required REI to develop a more formalized compliance program to communicate its code of conduct and expectations of employee behavior. Wall is at the forefront of this effort to keep the company’s approach cohesive, especially as growth brings in new employees, customers, and members still being introduced to its culture.

Communities naturally rally around local companies, and on the West Coast, REI has enjoyed great affection for many years, particularly among the region’s many hikers, campers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. “It is very much a Northwest company with strong Northwest ties,” Wall says, but she adds that the original essence born and cultivated in that area may not be obvious to individuals outside of it. “They don’t necessarily understand what it means to be a co-op, what we stand behind and stand for.”

As the company continues to grow, it is important that all employees, regardless of where they are located, understand what the company expects of them—and, just as important, what they can expect from REI. One of the nine new value statements is “We Hold Ourselves to a Higher Standard,” and this ethos is key to the new ethics and compliance program.

Wall’s group is therefore creating a formal, systemic program that will clearly define the company’s business conduct policies and make them easily accessible. The effort includes refreshing REI’s code of conduct and implementing a policy management system while simultaneously developing a communications and training plan that supports the overall program.

“It’s a reaffirmation that we really mean what we say, whether it’s in a code of conduct, employee handbook, or any other company communication,” Wall says. “Just being consistent and clear on expectations makes a difference. We mean what we say, in everything that we do, regardless of how it’s coming to you as an employee.”

Currently, new hires receive an electronic version of the employee handbook and the code of conduct during their onboarding process. When questions arise, employees are referred to a difficult-to-navigate intranet site providing the latest policies. Beyond that, there are no official lessons or expectations. In accordance with Wall’s new compliance program, though, employees will receive targeted compliance training when hired. And they will undergo further training on a predetermined cadence (or situationally, as needed), based on their role in the organization.

The revised collection of policies and procedures will offer employees a clear understanding of company expectations for how they should work and treat their vendor base, customers, and coworkers. They’ll also be able to find additional information through new policy-management technologies to navigate challenging decisions and obtain help when required.

Jolene Wall, Deputy General Counsel, REI Photo by Michelle Pritchow

The project is still in the development and executive buy-in stages at the moment, but Wall is optimistic as she looks ahead. “We’re at an interesting inflection point, because we’re rolling out a refreshed set of values so that it’s very clear to employees what we stand for,” Wall says. “Then, within the next six months, eight months, a year, we’re going to be rolling out our refreshed code of conduct that will build off of the refreshed value statements and provide clear expectations for employees around business conduct.”

“I’m excited and invigorated with the work and how it is all coming together,” Wall adds. “It’s not many times in your career that you get to roll out an entire compliance program from the ground up. I’m not overwhelmed yet. I have a really good team around me and cross-divisional partners that are supporting the work, which has been absolutely key. Without it, we would be going nowhere.”