A greeter, though not at Wal-Mart, was fired in Michigan for helping a customer in need. David Bowers, was working when a customer ran into the building seeking help with a car fire. As many would, Bowers grabbed a nearby fire extinguisher, ran outside, and helped put out the fire. Then he was fired. The company that he was working for had a clear policy against actions like rushing out of the store to put a fire. When Bowers broke the policy the company felt it was a severe enough violation to fire him. Although one of Bowers’ supervisors did comment that his “heart was in the right place, but his head wasn’t.”
Policies Sometimes Trump Instincts
It is easy to imagine that many people would have reacted like Bowers. However, there are dangers in reacting, which is why employers create polices like the one Bowers broke. Many employers have polices that make very little sense or make too much sense at first glance. For instance, if you are a retail employee and your employer has a clear policy against confronting or chasing suspected thieves or robbers. That policy makes a lot of sense because you are not trained to take down thieves, but makes little sense because you know that you would never chase after someone. But when you actually see someone steal something, would you think before you chased after them or would you just react?
Employers have to consider the safety of their employees and their customers and the dangers of allowing employees to just react. Generally speaking it is safer for all parties involved if the police or fire departments handle situations that are beyond the scope of an employee’s job description. Employers want to avoid potential injuries and dangers that are associated with actions like chasing suspected thieves and putting out car fires in the parking lot. Employers may also have made a cost benefit analysis of situations like these and concluded that the cost of stolen items or fire damage was less than the cost of an injured, valuable employee.
There are a number of reasons for employer policies, but it is important that employees know how the employer will respond to violations. If the policy is one sentence buried in a 30 page handbook and never addressed during orientation or training, then there is the potential for the employee violating the policy, endangering everyone involved, and arguing that the violation was not grounds for termination. Clear explanation of safety policies like “Do not chase after suspected thieves” or “Do not attempt to put out fires by yourself” can be made stronger with training. For instance, training hypotheticals that give examples of acceptable alternatives to the human impulse to put out a fire like evacuate customers from the area, call a manager, and call the fire department. These types of trainings and suggestions help make it clear that the employer does not want employees putting themselves in danger, but still expect the employee to take proactive steps to reduce the dangers as part of their job.
Even though sudden termination rarely seem fair, particularly if it is related to something like putting out a car fire, employers frequently have legitimate reasons for their actions. But if you believe that you were wrongfully terminated, a HKM employment attorney can help.