Image: A Walmart Supercenter
JOSHUA LOTT  /  Reuters
Large companies like Walmart steadfastly enforce their policies to protect them from liability, even if their employees have performed courageously in difficult situations.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/6/2011 7:16:00 PM ET 2011-03-07T00:16:00

There was public outrage recently when four employees at a Walmart store in Utah lost their jobs for safely disarming a gun-toting shoplifter. But no one should be too surprised by the retail giant’s tough stance.

Walmart, the largest U.S. employer, has a long history of steadfastly enforcing its own rules and this recent example is no different. The retailer’s policy states that security personnel should step away from a thief if the individual has a gun, but in this instance the employees involved — including Justin Richins, Shawn Ray, Lori Poulsen, and Gabriel Stewart — felt compelled to subdue the gunman.

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Rules can’t anticipate the details of specific events like the one that unfolded at the Layton, Utah, store on the afternoon of Jan. 13, but often Walmart takes a blanket approach to defending them. Such strict adherence to policy is what many large corporations have to do in order to fight against lawsuits and liability, management experts maintain. And Walmart is often seen as the toughest defender of its own edicts when it comes not only to merchandising, but also its workforce. But does this approach make business or ethical sense, and does it ever cross the legal line?

“Walmart has a very persistent history of enforcing its policies; whether it’s right or wrong they enforce their policies,” said David Childers, CEO of EthicsPoint, an ethics and compliance solutions provider. “Walmart is rules laden, and less principles based.”

While Childers said it makes sense for companies to be consistent when enforcing policies, being too inflexible can backfire.

“What kind of employer does Walmart want to be seen as in the public eye?” he said. “They aren’t doing themselves any favors by being so rigid.”

Indeed, many people were angry at the retailer’s decision. Blogs called for boycotts, while thousands of anti-Walmart comments appeared on the websites of national and local media that covered the firings.

The retailer is no stranger to controversy when it comes to employee actions.

There was a public outcry in 2009 when Joseph Casias, a star Walmart employee at a Battle Creek, Mich., store, was fired for legally using medical marijuana to deal with pain caused by an inoperable brain tumor. Casias hadn’t used the drug while on duty as an associate, but the retailer had enforced its strict policy regarding drug use among it staffers.

And after news of the Layton firings came to light, James Dallin, a long-time assistant manager at a store in Cedar Hills, Utah, told the Deseret News, a local newspaper, that he was fired for being in breach of Walmart policy when he separated an angry husband from a female worker at the store. Just a few months later, Wichita, Kan., Walmart associate Heather Ravenstein was fired for stopping a thief from stealing a computer, according to The Wichita Eagle.

“We do look at the individual situations and we conduct a thorough review to make sure we consider each instance individually,” Walmart spokesman Lorenzo Lopez stressed, adding that “we have policies in place to protect the safety of associates and customers.”

Many corporations’ rules are designed to protect them from lawsuits if someone is injured, and insurance companies investigating such injuries look at whether the actions of employees were reasonable or not and thus determine what they’ll cover, said Sheryl Willert, a member of the labor and employment law committee of DRI, an organization of attorneys defending the interests of businesses and individuals in civil litigation.

To be sure, Walmart isn’t the only company enforcing workplace rules. Last month, Teresa Danford, an employee of Crane Interiors in Woodbury, Tenn., was suspended without pay after taking a phone call on her cell phone during work hours from her son who was deployed in Afghanistan, according to CBS-affiliate WTVF in Tennessee. And earlier this year Tiffany Langeslay, an assistant manager at a McDonald’s in Eden Prairie, Minn., lost her job after breaking store rules by allowing a football running back for the Minnesota Vikings, Adrian Peterson, to use the bathroom after the store had just closed, according to NBC Sports.

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In these two examples, the employers swallowed their policy pride. Danford got an apology from management and Langeslay got her job back. Will Walmart’s management change its mind? Right now it doesn’t look like it will.

“At this point in time, we’ve made our decision,” Walmart spokesman Lopez said.

And Walmart can enforce that decision, “no matter how stupid it is,” said Philip Mortensen, a New York management attorney.

“Utah is considered an ‘employment at will’ state,” he continued, so “baring a union or other contract for protection, Walmart would have been free to fire the security guards in Utah, provided no federal, state or local laws were being violated.”

When it comes to the courts, the issue has gone in “different directions,” said Eugene Wolokh, law professor at UCLA School of Law. There are state constitutions, he explained, that secure a person’s right to self-defense, but the laws don’t say anything about employers.

In the case of Casias (the Walmart worker who was fired for medical marijuana and then sued) a federal judge last month dismissed his suit, saying the state’s pot laws did not protect individuals from being fired by private employers.

In another suit from 2000 involving Antonio Feliciano, a 7-Eleven employee in Martinsburg, W.Va., who foiled a robbery and was fired for violating company policy, the state Supreme Court found he could not be fired for exercising his self-defense right. But when Feliciano sought damages in district court the jury found he was not wrongfully terminated.

An older case from Washington State found fault with the employer.

An armored truck guard Kevin Gardner who worked for Loomis Armored in Washington State was fired because he temporarily left his vehicle to help a woman at a bank who was being held hostage by a robber holding a knife to her neck. The district court said that the company’s policy made sense, but the firing of Gardner was unlawful, stating:

“We find that Gardner’s discharge for leaving the truck and saving a woman from an imminent life threatening situation violates the public policy encouraging such heroic conduct.”

As for the Walmart Utah security guards, the group of one woman and three men who subdued the gunman was indeed heroic.

Trent Longton, who had multiple arrest warrants, tried to steal a laptop from the Walmart store. He was caught by security guards, detained in a room, and then brandished a loaded handgun in an attempt to escape. According to the police report:

“Trent did not point the gun at anyone or make any direct threats; however, he used the gun to intimidate the Walmart associates into releasing him. Trent also tried to escape detention from Walmart associates by trying to break free from their grasp. Walmart associates were able to remove the gun from Trent’s hand and keep him detained until” the police arrived.

Walmart’s policy does not take into account all situations, maintained Leonard Emma, an Oakland, Calif., labor lawyer who represents employees.

“What if, after following policy, the perpetrator doesn’t run off with the loot, but instead points a gun at someone back and continues to speak in a threatening tone? At what point may they aggressively defend their own lives? According to Walmart’s policy, never.”

While Layton, Utah, Police Department spokesman Lt. Garrett Atkin would not comment on whether the employees’ actions were appropriate or not, he said:

“People in that split second take whatever action they spontaneously think they have to take. Everyone has to weigh that for themselves.”

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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