Retail giant Walmart has done an about-face after getting flak for its handling of an employee who tried to be a good Samaritan.
It all started in the early hours of Sunday morning. 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.
But Walmart said he 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.
National media picked up news of the firing early Friday, prompting outrage on Twitter and media message boards. The news reports forced the company to talk to witnesses and review the police report and video footage, says Brooke Buchanan, another spokeswoman for the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer.
Walmart concluded he did nothing wrong, she says. And late in the day, Walmart announced it was willing to rehire Oswald.
“We realized his intentions were good, and we’ve contacted him to offer him his job back and welcome him back to the store,” she says. “Sometimes we don’t get everything right, and each circumstance is different.”
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, he says.
“It would be difficult to see this defined within the realm of this policy,” Professor Chaison says.
Oswald, Ms. Buchanan notes, broke company protocol that requires employees “to alert management and call the police” when violence breaks out.
The firing, 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.
Walmart probably first sided with local management, which is typical due to concerns about liability, Chaison says, even if the corporate office may see the incident as an embarrassment.
“Walmart is walking the fine line here, supporting [managers] who do things like this, but not encouraging them to do it at the same time,” he says.