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Employers Struggle with Disciplining Heroes

Another company is facing a public backlash for terminating an employee viewed as a “hero.”  An AutoZone employee in Virginia was fired after foiling a robbery at the store.  The “Fake Beard Bandit,” who had robbed 30 stores in the area and had targeted the same location before, entered the store to rob it.  An employee, Devin McLean, escaped from the store, retrieved a gun from his truck, and re-entered the store.  The robber fled.  While his manager and the local sheriff hailed him as a “hero,” the company terminated his employment for violating its zero tolerance policy on weapons in the workplace.

This incident put the employer in an extremely difficult situation.  On the one hand, McLean’s actions foiled the robbery, potentially saving the lives of anyone in the store.  On the other hand, employers create zero tolerance policies like this one to protect the safety of employees and customers.  AutoZone notes that there have been incidents in the past where employees have introduced weapons in situations like this one, and people have been injured.  In this case, that did not happen, but if it fails to take action against McLean, how can it discipline an employee who intervenes in a future situation and is not so lucky?

Although AutoZone’s actions probably were lawful, public sympathy for the fired employee is creating a public relations nightmare.  Not only did McLean foil the robbery, he is an Air Force veteran with a baby on the way.  The public did not take kindly to his termination.  A month after McLean was fired, protests have occurred outside the store and there are calls for a boycott.  Social media websites also contribute to the public backlash by allowing an incident at a Virginia store to quickly become the subject of a national dialogue about workplace safety, employee rights, and carrying firearms in public.

Employers can maintain the integrity of their policies while recognizing the heroic acts of an employee by disciplining the employee, but reducing the degree.  For example, instead of terminating the employee, the employer can explain that he violated a rule that must be followed in all circumstances, including extreme ones, and explain why the rule must remain even in those situations.  The employer can then impose discipline one step below the normal level.  So, instead of terminating an employee for violating the weapons policy, the employer can issue a final warning.

Employers should also consider what they can do to make a safer workplace.  If a store is a frequent target for robberies, are there additional security measures available?  Are employees trained on how to respond to a robbery?  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigates safety issues in the workplace, including incidents of workplace violence.  It offers guidance for employers on how to address workplace violence.  All workplaces have some risk of workplace violence.  Employers must be able to assess the threat and equip their teams to respond to these situations.

Brody and Associates regularly advises its clients on all labor management issues and provides various training programs.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.965.0560.