Last Friday, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that several former Walmart employees were wrongfully terminated by the retail giant after they confronted and disarmed weapon-toting shoplifters.
The Utah high court effectively decided that one’s right to self-defense trumps Walmart’s employee policy that instructs workers to “disengage” and retreat in the face of an armed suspect.
“The right of self-defense is a public policy of sufficient clarity and weight to qualify as an exception to the at-will employment doctrine,” said the court in its 4-1 majority opinion. “But we limit the exception to situations where an employee reasonably believes that force is necessary to defend against an imminent threat of serious bodily harm and the employee has no opportunity to withdraw.”
There were several plaintiffs in the case, West Valley Wal-Mart employees Derek Holt and Eric Hunter, who were fired after they grabbed a shoplifter armed with a knife who threatened to stab them; and Layton Wal-Mart employees Shawn Ray, Lori Poulsen and Gabriel Stewart, who were fired after they stopped a suspect allegedly stealing a laptop computer.
“Ms. Poulsen saw the customer move a gun from his back to his coat pocket. A physical struggle ensued, resulting in the Wal-Mart employees pinning the customer against a wall and grabbing the gun,” said the court in its decision.
In either situation, the court rightly concluded that “there is a clear and substantial public policy in Utah favoring the right of self-defense.”
Yet, Walmart disagreed with the decision and stood by their rather dangerous policy.
“Our No. 1 concern is always the safety of our customers and associates, and we don’t condone behavior that puts them at risk. We respectfully disagree with the court’s decision and will review our options,” Randy Hargrove, national media relations director, told the Deseret News. “We believe this sets a bad precedent for businesses and the customers they serve.”
Walmart claims that they don’t want to put employees at risk, but couldn’t I argue that not deferring to the individual’s discretion as to whether action is needed to prevent physical harm or even death putting the employee in greater danger?
According to the Walmart policy, “if the suspect is believed to possess a weapon, the suspect must not be approached. If during an approach or investigation it becomes apparent that the suspect has a weapon or brandishes or threatens use of a weapon, all associates must disengage from the situation, withdraw to a safe position, and contact law enforcement.”
The use of force in any situation isn’t a one size fits all. Yes, in many situations, retreating and disengaging (and other forms of de-escalation) are the right call — but not always. Sometimes, it’s necessary for one to take quick and decisive action to thwart an armed assault. The answer is it all depends, which is why Walmart’s blanket policy calling for retreat is inherently flawed.
Of course, I understand why Walmart takes the position it does. Legal liability. Walmart can’t encourage employees to take action or to even use their discretion because that would open a whole other can of worms as it relates to injury lawsuits, e.g. I got injured stopping a thief at work. Walmart, now you need to pay my disability because I was following company policy!
That said, Walmart’s decision to fire these employees who did what presumably they thought was right also shows a lack of compassion and sensitivity to the predicament they are placing their employees in. But I guess that’s corporate America for you. Corporations don’t have your back, they don’t value your judgment and they don’t want you to disobey orders, regardless of the outcome.
What’s funny, is that if these employees were to do what they did at a mom and pop store they would have been heralded as heroes and celebrated for stopping armed crooks. Not at Walmart though. They just want you to disengage, come what may.