Policing a policy too far?

Walmart firing raises question of whether workplace policy enforcement should be black-and-white or should there be leeway?

By Jeffrey R. Smith

Workplace policies are a good way for employers to reduce the chances of disruption due to misconduct, keep the workflow going and protect employees from things like harassment and unsafe conditions.

And, as has been said many times in the past, policies are only as good as the employer’s commitment to enforcing them. An inconsistently enforced policy is unlikely to hold up as a reason for discipline or just cause for dismissal.

But should workplace policies be black-and-white? If all employees are made aware of the policy and the possible consequences of breaching it, an employer is probably pretty safe from liability — and employees won’t have much of an argument if they’re disciplined for a breach. But like any rules, maybe there could be exceptions.

A Walmart store in Kemptville, Ont., was in the news recently after pharmacy technician Carla Cheney was fired for being rude to a customer. The company has a strict policy about treatment of customers and, even though Cheney wasn’t working at the time of the incident, it took place in the Walmart parking lot.

However, controversy arose when Cheney came forward to the media and said the incident which led to her firing involved her confronting a customer who had left his dog in his van on a hot day. Before starting her shift, Cheney noticed the man leaving his dog in the van and rolling up the windows. She then called police, as it’s well-known that temperatures inside vehicles on a hot day can climb quickly and kill any animals or children trapped inside. Police have broken into vehicles to save animals left in cars in such conditions.

A few days later, Cheney was fired. She told CTV Ottawa that when she asked why, her manager told her it was for being rude to a customer. Walmart has since posted on its Facebook page that Cheney was fired for other reasons, but can’t disclose them due to “privacy reasons.” The company also said it would be posting signs at all its Canadian stores warning people not to leave kids and pets in locked vehicles.

There are different sides to this story, so it’s hard to determine who is telling the truth. Walmart could be trying to save face after a bad decision, or it could be a case of a spiteful former employee trying to get back at the company that fired her.

But if her story is true, is it a case of going too far? Should employees be held accountable of breaching workplace policies, regardless of the reason, or should there be some leeway in determining culpability – particularly if the misconduct is provoked by the bad behaviour of a customer or co-worker? If the story is true, should Walmart in fact be guilty of bad-faith conduct in dismissal, even though it was technically enforcing a policy?

It should also be noted that since Walmart’s position is that Cheney was fired for other reasons, Cheney may be unaware of those reasons. That in itself could leave the company open to liability.

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. He can be reached at j[email protected] or visit www.employmentlawtoday.com for more information.

Latest stories