Wal-Mart Fires Worker For Helping Customer

Wal-Mart has fired an employee for coming to the aid of a customer being assaulted in the parking lot.

Wal-Mart has fired an employee for coming to the aid of a customer being assaulted in the parking lot.

MSN (“Wal-Mart worker: Fired for helping assaulted woman“):

A Michigan man says he was fired from his job at Wal-Mart after he tried to help a woman being assaulted in the parking lot of one of the retail giant’s stores and ended up fighting with her attacker.

Kristopher Oswald told WXYZ-TV in Detroit that Wal-Mart has policies against workplace violence to prevent employees from assaulting co-workers or tackling a shoplifter, but that it appears that nothing allows for them to assist in situations of imminent danger and self-defense.

A spokeswoman for Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. told The Associated Press on Thursday that while the company understood Oswald’s intentions, his actions violated company policy.

“We had to make a tough decision, one that we don’t take lightly, and he’s no longer with the company,” company spokeswoman Ashley Hardie said.

Oswald, 30, said he was in his car on his break about 2:30 a.m. Sunday when he saw a man grabbing a woman. He said he asked her if she needed help and the man started punching him in the head and yelling that he was going to kill him. Oswald said he was able to get on top of the man, but then two other men jumped him from behind.

Livingston County sheriff’s deputies arrived and halted the fight.

Oswald said the Hartland Township store’s management gave him paperwork saying that “after a violation of company policy on his lunch break, it was determined to end his temporary assignment.” Oswald had worked for Wal-Mart for about seven weeks and said he would not have been considered a permanent employee until after his 180-day probation.

“The last thing I expected was to not have a job,” Oswald said.

There has to be more to the story than this. Maybe Wal-Mart worries that they’ll be sued by employees who get hurt in these sort of altercations. Or that establishing the precedent would somehow create a legal obligation for employees to intervene in future cases.  But, surely, this particular outcome is unjust.

Given that, it’s truly baffling that Wal-Mart corporate headquarters, not some junior woodchuck manager at the local store, made this call.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Quick Takes
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Sounds to me like some corporate worrying about potential legal liability that gets adopted into a policy that, stupidly, leaves managers no room to exercise discretion.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    Or maybe it’s just an azzhole company that treats its people like crap.

  3. Jeff Householder says:

    This is a common policy. I’ve heard of this happening at other places. It doesn’t make it right, but it’s not just Walmart.

  4. rudderpedals says:

    “Watch out for always falling punches :-)”

  5. I remember a similar story from about a year ago in which the company (I can’t remember which) determined that the employee was engaging in unsafe actions.

    Too bad for Walmart, who was actually enjoying some good press recently. One thing that some people didn’t mention about the Louisiana riots was that the people were shopping at Walmart because all of the other stores wouldn’t let them use their benefit cards while the system was down; Walmart at least let the cards be used.

  6. @Jeff Householder:

    Exactly my point.

  7. anjin-san says:

    Wal-Mart has a long history of treating it’s people like crap. Shop Costco.

  8. michael reynolds says:

    Up-voting the Costco love.Very different clientele and different mission, but it’s past time from Wal-Mart to move away from the cotton plantation model and toward something a bit less slave labor driven.

  9. Scott says:

    And what is Walmart legal liability on what happens in their parking lots?

  10. JKB says:

    Sure, blame Walmart when you should be blaming the legal “profession” or your local worker comp/employment activist. They created this situation.

    The guy was on his employers property. He was either on the clock, or possibly off-clock at lunch. In any case, his actions could have resulted in injuries, either to himself or others. Had he been injured, he would have had a worker’s comp claim. Had others been injured, some lawyer would show up to say Walmart must pay for the actions of their employee.

    In any case, Walmart probably gets a break on their very expensive workers comp/liability insurance by having a policy of no physical intervention by their employees. if they don’t enforce it, the insurance company LAWYERS will say they violated the terms and not pay. Same thing happens at Home Depot or Lowes when one of their employees moves a forklift without a spotter.

    I’m surprised Doug as an attorney can’t see this as a policy to limit liability.

    Got a problem, this derives straight from labor/employer liability law, so blame the lawyers and the plaintiff bar who seek multi-million dollar judgements for minor injuries. And that some lawyer or judge will at some point take any discretion exercised as a reason to hold Walmart liable for some other injury or termination for violation of the policy.

    Got a problem, blame the lawyers.

  11. Rafer Janders says:

    @JKB:

    Sure, blame Walmart when you should be blaming the legal “profession” or your local worker comp/employment activist. They created this situation.

    Ah, the conservative mind: it’s always someone else’s fault. It’s never, never the responsibility of the person who actually engages in the act, it’s always the fault of someone, somewhere else who “made” them do it via mysterious powers of transference and mind control. It’s the lawyers, it’s the unions, it’s the married gay Mexicans, it’s the Freemasons, but it’s not my fault!!!!

    Just once, just once, I’d love to see a conservative step up and take some responsibility for their life and actions. But I think it’s going to be a long wait….

  12. beth says:

    @JKB: Yeah, it’s the lawyers acting completely on their own. No one hires them or directs them to sue other people, nope, they do it all by themselves.

  13. Dave Schuler says:

    Bureaucracies are predisposed to do what’s easy to administer. That’s the same whether it’s a corporate bureaucracy, a government bureaucracy, a hospital bureaucracy, or the bureaucracy of a religious denomination.

    A “fighting = dismissal” policy is easy to administer. A more nuanced policy requiring a determination of fact and guilt, something that would have resulted in a more just outcome in the case described in the post, is much harder to administer and inevitably requires judgement calls.

    This is another instance of the underlying problem being largeness. I carry no water for Wal-Mart but I suspect that in similar circumstances most large organizations would do exactly the same thing.

  14. Tony W says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    A “fighting = dismissal” policy is easy to administer.

    Agreed, feels more like a crazy school district “zero tolerance” situation than a “WalMart hates its people” one.

  15. anjin-san says:
  16. anjin-san says:

    @ JKB

    I bet those lawyers come from elite Ivy colleges as well. It’s possible that satanic ceremonies are involved.

  17. Stephen Lott says:

    I can’t believe we’ve come to a point where doing the right thing gets you fired.
    Shame on Walmart and shame on attorneys everywhere.

    I for one am boycotting Walmart until I hear Kristopher Oswald has been re-hired.

  18. Tyrell says:

    This man should be given an award and honored by the community and WalMart. We certainly hope the people who committed this crime are given long prison terms like they deserve. Companies should always reward employees who go above and beyond their duties. I used to know a lady who worked at a clothing store who would chase shoplifters down to retrieve stolen merchandise.
    We don’t have a Costco around here.

  19. aFloridian says:

    @Stephen Lott:

    Shame on Walmart and shame on attorneys everywhere.

    Attorneys are like police. Everyone hates on them until THEY need one to defend their rights. Attorneys may make money off these situations, but they are serving a valuable purpose. If the worker gets hurt with no compensation available, shouldn’t he be protected? The unfortunate other side of that coin is that companies have to protect themselves as well.

    As a former Walmart employee, I can attest to how poorly they treat their workers. It’s shameful that a company would operate the way do.

  20. Steve V says:

    If the employer had been a government agency instead of Walmart, JKB would be complaining about how stupid government bureaucracies are. Because it’s a private company, it’s surely someone else’s fault!

  21. James Joyner says:

    @anjin-san: @michael reynolds: I’m a big Costco fan and shop there constantly now that a new one has opened half a mile from the house. But it’s not a fair comparison, in that Costco requires you to buy a $55/year membership (I opted for the $110 corporate plan, since it came with a $20 gift card, a spare membership, and cash back on every purchase) and specializes in bulk purchases. They also check your cart against your receipt on the way out the door. They have much lower risk and have a much more selective clientele.

  22. trumwill says:

    The primary thing the Walmart vs Costco financial reports indicate is that it’s better to be in the business of selling stuff to people with more money than it is to be in the business of selling stuff to people with less money.

  23. bill says:

    @michael reynolds: they have to limit liability as it’ always open season on successful companies, how many jurors would side with a bazillion dollar company in the event he was maimed? it sucks but it is what is is, we’re an overly litigious country. (think John Edwards!)

  24. RGardner says:

    They came to their senses, an Emily Litella moment. Walmart reverses course.

    Wal-Mart concluded he did nothing wrong, she says. And late in the day, Wal-Mart announced it was willing to rehire Oswald.

    “We realized his intentions were good, and we’ve contacted him to offer him his job back and welcome him back to the store,” she says. “Sometimes we don’t get everything right, and each circumstance is different.”

    The incident underscores that gray areas exist in corporate policies. Most policies, specifically for ethical conduct, cover workplace violence and are intended to curb uncivil behavior such as shouting, shoving, and physical attacks on co-workers or customers, says Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. But good Samaritan acts like the one in Michigan would typically not be covered under such a policy, he says.

    @anjin-san – Those folks at Costco giving out food samples are not Costco employees, and get no benefits. I like reminding folks bashing Walmart that Hillary Clinton was a Director (on the Board) of Walmart for 6 years (1986-92) when the largest expansion plans occurred. Costco is not comparable to Walmart, but it is to Walmart-owned Sam’s Club. I’m a Costco member and much prefer it to Sam’s Club (I was a member there 95-97 in a place there were no Costcos). But I can’t get a battery for my watch at Costco, even if I bought it there. I can at Walmart, so apples and oranges comparison.

  25. JKB says:

    @aFloridian: Attorneys are like police. Everyone hates on them until THEY need one to defend their rights.

    Oh, I agree. Lawyers like everyone and every profession provide good and bad. But everyone here was condemning Walmart for the logical actions they took based on a logical assessment of the financial risk from employees taking action.

    Take, for example, testing as part of job candidate assessment. Many claim it is illegal, but it isn’t. The test has to be materially related to the skills necessary for the job in question but otherwise, testing is still permitted. However, any employer that conducts such testing will eventually be subject to expensive litigation. Whether they successfully defend their test or not, they will have wasted a lot of time and money in court and on lawyers. Assuming they aren’t in the legal profession, all that time and money is an unnecessary cost and can severely threaten their normal business. So the companies don’t test. Not because they can’t legally but because it is to much of a costly risk no matter how narrow they tailor the test.

    Lawyer good, in that they stopped vague non-job related testing. Lawyer bad, in that they keep trying to extract money from companies that might use job related testing. End result, employers use//used college as a proxy for testing and the liberal arts are justified as being useful a signal that a graduate is able to get up in the morning to show up and do some semblance of required tasks.

  26. Just Me says:

    As for the Walmart/Costco debate.

    They serve two totally different types of people. Walmarts will build in rural, low income areas-Costco usually builds in upscale suburbs and wealthier areas.

    There are Walmarts all over my state and several up in the North Country where population is sparse and incomes fairly low.

    There is one Costco and it is one of the most expensive cities to live, where most residents are very wealthy and is also close enough to the border to draw people from MA to take advantage of the no sales tax.

  27. mattbernius says:

    @aFloridian:

    Attorneys are like police. Everyone hates on them until THEY need one to defend their rights.

    B-I-N-G-O!

    And in fact, it seems like most of the blowhards who complain the most about Lawyers are also always the first to Lawyer up at the slightest wiff of trouble or infringement.

  28. rudderpedals says:

    WRT employee treatment would it make more sense to compare Costco to Sam’s Club instead of Wal Mart?

  29. anjin-san says:

    @ James

    But it’s not a fair comparison

    Sure it is. One company has people in the executive suite who’s culture is “we think our people are a valuable asset, and we want to take care of them and have them invested in the company’s success.” The other has a culture that says “Our employees are a disposable asset. There are plenty more where they came from.”

    The business models are different, but Wal Mart is free to pursue a culture that supports and rewards their employees as best possible with available resources. They choose not to, opting for a degrading, non-rewarding culture.

  30. anjin-san says:

    BTW, WalMart was #2 in the Fortune 500 in 2011, with a profit of 15.7 billion. So the “Gee, poor WalMart just can’t afford to pay well” argument smacks more of enablement that reasonable business analysis.

  31. anjin-san says:

    How could poor WalMart possibly afford decent pay and benefits?

    Fortune Magazine 20 most profitable companies 2011
    Wal-Mart

    Fortune 500 rank: 2
    2011 profit: $15.7 billion

    The retail giant has certainly had better years. Wal-Mart lost its top spot on this year’s Fortune 500, fell four spots on our most profitable ranking, and is now dealing with bribery allegations related to its operations in Mexico. Just the same, business abroad has been essential to its growth. Net sales for the Wal-Mart International increased by 12% in 2011, with Brazil, China, and Mexico contributing some of the largest increases.

    http://money.cnn.com/galleries/2012/fortune/1205/gallery.500-most-profitable.fortune/10.html

  32. Matt says:

    @anjin-san: Oh they’ve already figured out that Walmart could pay it’s workers 12 bucks an hour and only have to raise prices slightly to compensate. The price raise would actually be needed as Walmartt rolls on a small margin for profit.

    http://laborcenter.berkeley.edu/retail/bigbox_livingwage_policies11.pdf