Heather Ravenstein is now unemployed, all because she thought she was doing her job. Ravenstein stopped a man who was trying to steal a $600 computer from the Kansas Walmart where she works Friday night and Saturday she was fired for breaking the store’s black and white rule about which employees can stop shoplifters. Yes, fired. Not rewarded, not promoted, not even given a $25 Walmart coupon. Fired.
Walmart officials told McClatchy Newspapers that they had to fire Ravenstein because her actions put her safety “and perhaps the safety of our customers” in jeopardy and, thus, violated company policy. The policy, according to the story, is that only Walmart management or someone in “asset protection” can stop thieves.
OK, so I understand the need for rules, even rules employees claim they weren’t told about. But zero-tolerance policies lead to stupid decisions. They are really popular, mostly in schools, but apparently gaining in popularity in the work place as well. But they don’t teach anyone anything. Learning occurs when someone makes a mistake, works through it with problem-solving techniques and develops a plan to avoid said mistake in the future.
But do we do that? Nah. Instead, we suspend kindergartners for having goofy haircuts or showing off their Cub Scout knife, and apparently we fire employees who save our company money. Do companies really want their employees to look the other way when shoplifters head out their door instead of following their instincts and stopping them?
Walmart would say it wants its employees to follow the rules and call for management or the asset protection crew when a shoplifter is in flight (even if the potential criminal gets away while the “proper” employee runs to the front of the store). I’ll concede that employees should follow rules. But if one makes a mistake – and saves you money in so doing – don’t you think you could just sit that employee down, remind her of the rules and the reasoning behind them, and say, “Thanks, but don’t do that again” instead of tossing her to the curb?
I can hear the reasoning now: “Well, if we let HER get away with stopping a criminal, pretty soon everyone will be doing it and God knows what that could lead to!” It is the same reasoning used in schools by administrators who insist that their teachers use critical thinking and then refuse to do so themselves. No, Mr. Jones, you may not move Little Susie into a higher-level math because we have already passed the deadline for course changes and, you know, if we let her enroll in Calculus in December, pretty soon EVERYONE will want to take Calculus. No, Ms. Smith, you may not develop a behavior plan with Little Johnny because he kissed Jenny on the playground because page 6 of the handbook says all cases of sexual harassment warrant suspension, not problem-solving.
Of course, Walmart is most likely viewing this as a CMA incident. If Ravenstein or the robber had been hurt, perhaps one of them would have sued. But Walmart could have explained that to the now-laid-off single mother and kept her on. Or better yet, maybe they could have put her on the asset protection crew, since she told reporters she’s also stopped people for forging payroll checks more than once. In other words, use the woman’s strengths, don’t terminate her. Luckily, other employers see Ravenstein’s gumption as something to be admired, and have called offering to interview her for possible jobs. Not everyone, it seems, thinks in black and white.