If you are on the wrong side of 40 and not as fit as you'd like to be, don't bother applying for a job at Wal-Mart. That is the message for workers in America - revealed in a secret memo, laying out a plan by Wal-Mart to make it harder for older, less healthy people to get a job at one of its legions of stores in the US.
The memo, written by Wal-Mart's vice-president in charge of benefits, says undesirable applicants could be discouraged by making physical activity part of the job, such as asking cashiers to demonstrate they are also able to collect trolleys. The tactics appear to be designed to drive down the bill for health care and other employee benefits at the company, which made $10bn (£5bn) in profits last year.
For the world's largest retailer, which owns Asda in the UK, the leaking of the memo could hardly have come at a worse time because it is has embarked on a campaign to improve its public image.
For Wal-Mart's mounting critics, the document is proof that it is the world's most controversial company, which locks its workers in overnight while they stock shelves and aggressively resists the formation of unions among its employees.
The normally private company, which has preferred to maintain a bunker mentality from its headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, has launched a number of initiatives to fight back against its critics.
Only this week, Wal-Mart announced a number of initiatives to make it seem like a more caring place to work. On Monday, the company published a speech by its chief executive, Lee Scott, urging Congress to raise the national minimum wage from $5.15 an hour. Mr Scott said Wal-Mart's millions of customers were "struggling to get by" on their current earnings.
The company, which has more than 3,300 stores in the US alone, also said it would improve its environmental record, increasing the fuel efficiency of its fleet of trucks and investing $500m a year to cut greenhouse emissions and conserve energy.
In a third offensive, Wal-Mart said it would make improvements in an area where criticism of the company has been particularly heated: health care. To counter criticism that Wal-Mart's benefits have been so poor that many of the workers - or "associates" as the company calls them - have resorted to Medicaid to pay hospital bills, it launched a new, cheaper plan. The initiative allows its 1.3 million US employees to buy into a health insurance programme for as little as $11 a month.
Yet the reality of Wal-Mart's attitude seems at odds with the positive impression the company had worked so hard to create. Susan Chambers, the Wal-Mart executive who prepared the memo with the consultants McKinsey, notes that Wal-Mart's workers "are getting sicker than the national population, particularly in obesity-related diseases".
To deal with this problem, Ms Chambers suggests various ways to woo younger workers and discourage older ones. "It will be far easier to retain a healthier work force than it will be to change the behaviour in an existing one ... These plans would also dissuade unhealthy people from coming to work at Wal-Mart", she writes in the document which was sent to the company's board to consider.
In an interview with the New York Times, Ms Chambers defended her ideas, saying her focus was not on slashing costs but on finding new more flexible ways to manage benefits. Ms Chambers also pointed to positive perks which would be offered to motivated associates, such as education programmes.
However, Wal-Mart's critics believe the company was revealing its true colours.
Andrew Grossman, director of Wal-Mart Watch, the advocacy group that received the document anonymously, said: "This company has been selling a false image of itself to the general public.
"Anyone who truly wishes to understand Wal-Mart need look no further than this document. We thank the good person or persons inside the Wal-Mart company who bravely shared this with us."
A spokesman for Asda, which Wal-Mart bought in July 1999, said the hiring tactics would not be used in the UK. "Our human resources policies are unique to Asda," he said.
© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.