Thursday, February 10, 2011

No good deed.

Julius Caesar contended that "cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once."* At the biggest corporation in the world, that philosophy is slightly revised. There, cowards may die many times before their deaths, but the valiant get terminated.

Just ask Layton, Utah, Walmart employees Gabriel Stewart, Shawn Ray, Lori Poulsen and Justin Richins.

You can read the news story and the police report. In short summary, loss prevention workers Poulsen, Ray and Richins caught a fellow stealing a computer. They stopped him at the door, took him to the loss prevention office and were joined by assistant manager Stewart. Once everyone had crowded into the small room, the shoplifter -- a convicted felon named Trent Allen Longton -- drew a pistol, put it to Stewart's back and demanded to be released.

No one was able to shoot Longton to the ground, since Walmart policy disarms its employees.** So the workers took the thief's gun away from him and sat on him until the police showed up. In terms we've used here before, they acted violently enough soon enough for long enough to end the threat.

They did not panic and decide that they were helpless victims. Nor did they allow this armed criminal to flee into the crowded store it was their job to protect, there to threaten or harm or abduct someone else. That the circumstances seem not to have given them any other real options -- as one employee describes it, there really wasn't anywhere for the four to flee even if they had wished to -- makes their actions no less valiant or correct. Many are those who might not have reacted so well. Not that these four need me to validate them, but given the available descriptions, I'd say their actions were tactically and morally perfect.

And so, you reasonably ask, what was Walmart's reward to these heroic folks? Are they even now being whisked to the Bentonville headquarters via private jet,*** there to be honored for their service, perhaps to be awarded the Sam Walton Medal for Valor?**** Will they get a lifetime membership to Sam's Club? Would you believe a free chewy pretzel?

No, none of this. Instead, Walmart gave all four employees some time off. Well, more accurately, they gave all four employees forever off. Walmart fired them all. Walmart shill, er, spokesman Dan Fogelman put it this way:
We appreciate the intentions demonstrated by our associates in this situation, but the actions taken put their safety -- and potentially the safety of our customers and other associates -- in jeopardy. In their roles within the store, they were aware of our expectations regarding safety and, unfortunately, their actions have led to them no longer working for the company.
The first sentence contains a lie. It has to be a lie because no human being capable of speech could be that dumb. The employees' actions didn't increase the danger to the others in the store. Once Langton produced the gun, and given the options available to them,  the loss prevention people were right to defend themselves, disarm the bad guy and contain him away from others he might have attacked.

But a lie from a fellow in Fogelman's position is no big deal. What's really foul is that last unctuous, passively evil clause: "[U]nfortunately, their actions have led to them no longer working for the company."

Bad enough that cowardice is evidently Walmart corporate policy. Worse that Walmart "associates" -- even the ones who exchange heroism for minimum wage -- are disposable. What stinks worst of all is that Walmart's cowardice is so complete that it cannot even take responsibility for its own actions in firing these people. Don't blame the company, it's just "unfortunate" that these employees' actions somehow "led to them no longer working for the company."

The fact is that Walmart expects its loss prevention people to use "reasonable force" to detain shoplifters, unless and until the shoplifter produces a weapon, at which point the employees are supposed to "disengage." Although that policy is desperately flawed on about three obvious bases, let's let it lie for now. Because the policy isn't the problem this time. The problem is Walmart's mechanical application of the policy and its struthious disregard of the circumstances -- and of the effect on the lives of four people. That's management by cowardice, plain and simple.

Still, I have to believe that Stewart, Ray, Poulsen and Richins won't be long out of work. Surely Layton, Utah must be home to at least one employer who values something more than low prices.

 *Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene II, Wm. Shakespeare. 

** Repeat Robert's Rule with me now: "Gun-free zones aren't"

*** Walmart's private fleet is the largest of any company.

**** No such medal exists, although Sam was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bush 41 in 1992.


  1. Stupidity is an exponential von Neumann Machine.

  2. I understand your feeling of revulsion for this decision. But I don't think Walmart was necessarily wrong.

    I assume that Walmart has the above referenced policies in place to avoid judgments. If this is the case, they did the absolutely correct thing. You see, if they reward these guys for their acts, the next time a criminal takes out a gun in a Walmart store the following could occur:

    Criminal brandishes weapon - Walmart employee "jumps to the rescue" - employee is shot - shopper is shot by stray bullet - Shopper sues Walmart - Walmart says that it is not their fault that anyone was shot - Walmart says that its policy is to let armed robbers take what they want so that no one will get shot in the process of defending Walmart property - lawyers say "Walmart is fork-tongued. They rewarded 4 guys in Utah for disarming an armed robber." - Jury concludes that Walmart doesn't REALLY mean for its employees to disengage in the face of an armed robber - jury further concludes that Walmart rewards employees for taking on armed robbers - jury concludes, as argued by the shopper, that but for Walmart rewarding employees who take on armed robbers, that the shopper wouldn't have been shot – jury concludes, as argued by the shopper, that if Walmart strictly enforced the disengament policy, that no one would have taken on the robber and that no bullets would have ultimately been fired - jury returns verdict for shopper and against Walmart.

    If Walmart wants to avoid the above scenario, they have no choice but to strictly and consistently enforce the disengagement policy.

  3. Gus:

    Thanks for your comment. I think you are certainly correct about the reason for the policy.

    But let's try this: Do what Walmart failed to do and apply the policy in detail to the facts of THIS event.

    How exactly does one disengage from a hostage taker, which is what this bad guy was? And if the employees had been able to do that, now you have the armed bad guy storming through the length of the store. If he decides he needs another hostage, or someone else in the store gets hurt, isn't Walmart back on the hook anyway? Didn'these employees do th best anyone could in the circumstances And if they did, what sense in a policy that punishes the best actions available?

    Another point I'm making is that the policy is not only offensive, corrosive and mean-spirited, it's wrong headed, impracticable and fails even to accomplish the purpose for which it ostensibly exists.


  4. "How exactly does one disengage from a hostage taker, which is what this bad guy was?" Answer: you let the police do it. You instruct your employees to put up their hands and say "We will not try to stop you. Take whatever you want. Please don't hurt anyone." Meanwhile, one of the countless employees or shoppers at the store calmly dials 911 and the police handle the situation. If someone gets shot because the police were over-zealous, Walmart can say it was the police who bungled the situation. After all, Walmart is not in the business of dealing with hostage situations – they are in the business of selling cheap Chinese made goods and destroying small-local businesses.

    Of course, nothing stops the injured shopper from suing Walmart, but I think that this would be the best policy.

    As for your comment "But let's try this: Do what Walmart failed to do and apply the policy in detail to the facts of THIS event." I think that Walmart did apply the policy in detail to the facts of this case. People are no different than dogs-they require a firm and consistent hand if they will do what you want them to do. Example, my dogs are not allowed in the kitchen as a general rule. However, I let one of them into the kitchen a few times "for justifiable reasons" (to get to the dog in the garage without going outside on a rainy day, to clean her face after she got cut in a fence fight with the neighbor's dog, etc.). Now, she follows me into the kitchen all the time - whether I invite her in or not.

    You cannot arbitrarily choose not to enforce a policy because "it worked out" that one time. In so doing, you merely encourage the behavior to be repeated. Next time, it may not work out so well. If the policy is to disengage from any and all armed robbers, employees MUST disengage EVERY time. Rewarding ANY employees for not disengaging, regardless of the outcome, undermines the policy and encourages future violation of the policy.

    Plus, do you REALLY want minimum wage Walmart security guards taking on armed robbers? I don’t.