Business Practices and Optics

Not all the employees are thankful. Yesterday, a former employee of Trillium posted a note on BeerAdvocate about getting a pay cut as a retail worker. The Boston Globe followed up on the story, confirming its basic points

“The brewery dropped the rate of pay to $5 an hour for new tipped employees as their workforce increased in recent years to include a popular beer garden on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, a new restaurant and brewery in Fort Point, and plans for a farm brewery in Connecticut. Most of Trillium’s approximately 250 employees work out of its large production facility and taproom in Canton.”

The Globe points out that two-thirds of the employees have health care, 401k accounts, and other benefits—which is great. But the initial charge was accurate, and as the story has unfolded, Trillium has continued to mishandle things in what amounts to a case study in bad crisis management. 

Let’s start from the top. Trillium’s decision to cut worker salararies was highly risky—and mystifying. The profit margins on retail sales is gigantic, and so the contrast between $22 four-packs and $5 hourly wages was not lost on commenters, as illustrated in comments on yesterday's Facebook post announcing the release of Permutation 68: 


Many people will see this as a failed ethical test, and it’s going to be hard to undo that damage. But getting in front of the unfolding (and entirely predictable) disaster was still possible. The order of events should have looked like this: 1) apologize without qualification both to the employees and to customers; 2) acknowledge responsibility, 3) offer a solution. 

Instead, owner JC Tetreault deflected and tried to justify his decision: “Every business has to choose the approach that feels best for them and their teams. For us, this allows us to offer greater staffing levels to keep wait times to a minimum, balances the workload for our team, and gives customers the option to tip which is why we started in the first place.”

This makes matters worse than no response because it reveals the brewery’s actual position—that pay cuts are fine, and no one’s sorry. If, ultimately, the brewery does apologize, this comment will remain in everyone’s mind. 

A couple months ago, I published results of a worker compensation survey. It was focused on brewers, not retail employees, but it confirmed that these kinds of incidents aren’t uncommon. Some breweries treat workers badly. One thing I really wanted to highlight in that survey was how hard it was for owners to see things from the worker’s perspective. In his response, Tetreault identified the parties of his concern: his own and his customers. I personally think the failure to consider his workers in this equation is indefensible, but that’s a judgment call. What owners should realize is this blindness has real-world consequences because other people care about workers. This unfolding disaster wouldn’t have happened had Tetreault had seen the potential PR complications of cutting pay and it would have been mitigated if he’d seen the problem after the fact. Even from a purely crass perspective, Trillium should have seen this coming. We live in a social media world. News travels fast; scandal travels at light speed. Trillium has flourished by placing itself in a bright spotlight. That comes with risks as well as rewards. Not every brewery has the profile to end up in the Boston Globe for mishandling worker relations, but this is an object lesson in how things can go sideways quickly by treating workers badly. 

Cover photo

Jeff Alworth14 Comments