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Oct 22, 2013

Every workplace has policies, but what do you do when you have workplace policies that keep your workers from doing the right thing?

This is what Walmart is facing after a recent incident where a worker who was acting as a Good Samaritan and stopped a man from assaulting a woman in a Walmart parking lot was fired for helping her.

Here’s what happened, according to an account from The Christian Science Monitor: 

It all started in the early hours of Sunday morning (Oct. 13). According to the Associated Press, Kristopher Oswald, a Walmart worker in Hartland, Mich., was taking a break in his car when he said he saw a man grabbing a woman.

The nighttime temporary seasonal worker said he asked her if she needed help and then intervened before Livingston County sheriff’s deputies could arrive. He said that he sustained punches from the man and that two other men jumped him as well.

“This was just intimidation, aggression, and bullying that I saw from a male belligerent suspect on a defenseless woman,” Mr. Oswald told WXYZ-TV in Detroit.”

He violated the company’s safety policy

Kristopher Oswald, the Good Samaritan fired by Wallmart
Kristopher Oswald, the Good Samaritan fired by Wallmart

Sounds like the kind of take charge, do-the-right-thing-type of worker you would want in your employ, but that’s not how his supervisors saw it:

Walmart said (Oswald) violated the company’s safety policy. According to AP, Oswald received termination paperwork that stated: “after a violation of company policy on his lunch break, it was determined to end his temporary assignment.”

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

As just about anybody in the media will tell you, this is one of those “red meat” news stories guaranteed to get the public riled up, because it violates our sense of fairness to see somebody lose their job for stepping in to help another person in need. After lots of outrage and bad, anti-Walmart press in the national media, the giant retailer reviewed the situation and offered Kristopher Oswald his job back.

All well that ends well, right?

Well, not really, because there are bigger issues here about workplace policies that should concern anyone who works in HR or manages talent — issues that  a company like Walmart needs to address before they have another incident of this type go viral on them.

Here are a couple that jump out at me:

1. The problem with one-size-fits-all HR policies

As The Monitor story notes, “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.”

I’m not sure how a policy that is designed to deal with bad behavior between employees on the job could be twisted to cover this situation, but this sounds like one where an overmatched manager was frantically searching the employee handbook to find something that covered this situation and settled on the wrong rule applied the wrong way.

That’s because too many HR policies deal in what NOT to do or what is prohibited behavior. Few, if any, spell out good things that they want to encourage employees to be doing, or even make a broad philosophical statement about how employees should act generally.

This means that sometimes, policies get forced to fit a certain situation whether they really apply or not — to the detriment of everyone involved.

2. A lack of managerial discretion and common sense

When situations like this pop up, I’m always amazed at the lack of common sense that seems to be at work. Most workplace policies allow for some degree of managerial discretion, but all too often you hear managers say something along the lines of, “I was just following the rules.”

As The Monitor story notes:

(Kristopher) Oswald … broke company protocol that requires employees “to alert management and call the police” when violence breaks out.

The firing, (Prof.) Chaison says, was probably the result of a “personal interpretation” by the manager of that specific store. That’s a common problem for retailers, he says – particularly Walmart, which is the largest retailer in the nation. It may have standardized policies for all its stores, but less control over how those polices are carried out.

“All Walmart can do is send out notices and do inspections and have meetings, but they are still very susceptible to embarrassing incidents which may not result from their policies but may be an interpretation of their policies,” Chaison says.

Why not a “do the right thing” policy?

Yes, Walmart and every other company is ALWAYS susceptible to the decisions of managers in the field to apply corporate policies properly, but this is where the organization would benefit from what I call a “Do the Right Thing”  philosophy. That is, businesses need to emphasize that an overriding principle is always that they “do the right thing” when it comes to handling both customers and employees, because that is what ultimately matters.

Organizations with “Do the Right Thing” policies (like Southwest Airlines) drum them into the heads of their managers at every turn, because they always want that philosophy to be front and center no matter what decision they are wrestling with. A policy like that surely would have helped Walmart here.

In the end, public outrage over a Good Samaritan getting fired for helping a woman in need trumped Walmart’s ham-fisted handling of this situation. The retailer decided to reverse the decision to fire Kristopher Oswald and offered him his old job back, although it is unclear if he is going to take them up on the offer.

As for Oswald, he said this in the wake of Walmart’s actions: “I’m always going to act the right way and do the right thing even after all of this … I was just doing what I thought I had to do.”

Kind of sounds like the kind of employee you’d want in your employ doesn’t it?