Despite the media onslaught that tends to circle the Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) wagon whenever employees are disgruntled or competitors inconvenienced, the world's leading retailer wants you to know that if it can't crush you, it will kill you with kindness.

The New York Times has received an internal company document that details plans for a new reward and incentives program at the leading discounter. Associates Out in Front has a few notable perks as well as a few that are comical enough to likely make the late night comedy show rounds later this week.

  • Employees will receive an additional 10% discount on a single item over the holidays (in addition to the ongoing 10% associate discount).
  • At the store level, managers will meet with 10 employees on a weekly basis to air out grievances and pose improvement suggestions.
  • A "premium holiday" when Wal-Mart covers the health care premiums of covered associates.
  • A special polo shirt to commemorate 20 years of service after a hire logs two decades at the company.

"I've worked at Wal-Mart for 20 years and all I got was this stinkin' polo shirt!"

Doesn't that sound like a Leno or Letterman punch line? It may not be edgy enough for the Stewart and Colbert camp. They may have to roll with something like:

"Hooray! 20% off the LCD flat screen television that I still can't afford."

Or let me help Letterman's Top 10 list efforts along by suggesting some of the entries for rejected Associates Out in Front benefits:

  • Polident and walkers stocked by entrance to facilitate Wal-Mart greeters.
  • Get a Key Day so illegal alien hires can avoid being locked in.
  • Smiley icon to come in more colors to promote racial diversity and harmony.
  • Free copies of What to Expect, When You're Expecting. to be Demoted to Part-Time Status to Skimp on Benefits.
  • Every Day Low Morale bumper stickers, sent out to Target (NYSE:TGT) associates.

The wide reach of Sam Walton
Wal-Mart has 1.3 million associates in the United States. In other words, one in every 227 people living in this country is a Wal-Mart hire. Not you? Not me? Look around. When you tack on family members of that associate, it's safe to assume that 1% to 2% of the country is fueled by Wal-Mart's payroll department. Naturally that's before we dig into the wider blanket of Wal-Mart suppliers or even the ripples in the economy created by a little more disposable income in the pockets of shoppers after scoring sweet savings.

Being so big is both a blessing and a curse for the Inside Value recommendation. On the plus side, you have economies of scale that make the retailer's cutting edge inventory control practices and operating efficiencies even more resilient. Unfortunately, when you're the top dog you're going to take some shots. How else could you explain Wal-Mart taking some heat earlier this year when it wanted to expand its financial services functionality? No one flinched when rival Target or non-retail titans like General Electric (NYSE:GE) and General Motors (NYSE:GM) were approved to form an industrial loan corporation.

This doesn't mean that Wal-Mart should be coated in Teflon. I am a pretty vocal defender of Wal-Mart, yet even I realize that the company can go too far in its hiring, and to a lesser extent competitive, practices. However, I draw the line when it gets to be a bit too much. When banks cry foul on their home turf, pro-Wal-Mart bloggers get taken to task, or when drugstores paint Wal-Mart as a villain in offering $4 generic medications, bashing Wal-Mart can become pretty nonsensical.

"Wal-Mart could strike oil, cure cancer, and send the Cubs to the World Series -- it wouldn't matter," I wrote last month. "Papers would still write about unauthorized drilling rights, cruelty to laboratory test tubes, and denying a goat its right to an eternal curse."

Every day low blows
If the new Wal-Mart initiatives bear fruit, we may very well mock the polo shirts -- until we see what they start fetching on eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) -- but let's see what we get out of those managerial meetings with rank-and-file employees. If there is an aura of resentment at the store level or if an eventual CEO is unloading deliveries in the back of the store, this sounds like the appropriate platform to keep promising hires close and vocal.

If suggestions are discarded and it's all lip service, then Wal-Mart will deserve the ire of critics, wrath of picketing associates, and losing that CEO circa 2025 to the Costco (NASDAQ:COST) stockroom down the street.

Wal-Mart is at a critical juncture. Yes, it's always been the target of warranted and often unwarranted attacks but the end result has always been a parking lot full of cars that leave heavier than they were when they arrived. Thrift trumps short shrift every time. It's different now, though. Recent trends are grim. Comps fell 0.1% last month and will climb no better than 1% here in December. We can't pin the malaise on negative media attention but it's got to make a dent.

When Wal-Mart's sales can't keep up with inflation, let's see what it can do to keep its image from avoiding further deflation.

With my apologies to the brilliantly myopic Mr. Stephen Colbert, you're on notice, Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart is an Inside Value newsletter service stock recommendation. Costco and eBay are Motley Fool Stock Advisor selections.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz still can't understand why his local South Florida Wal-Mart locations are such a chore to go to while he always has a great time at the Central Florida locations. He does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. Rick is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.