As employee Devin McLean and his manager were closing their AutoZone store one evening, a robber burst in. The robber forced the manager to his hands and knees in front of the store safe.
McLean, an Air Force veteran, sneaked out of the store, grabbed a legally registered Glock from his truck, returned and yelled, "Freeze! ... Drop the weapon!" The frightened robber bolted out of the door.
Though he was hailed as a hero and thanked by the grateful manager, the AutoZone corporate brass weren't pleased. They fired him for violating the company's policy of zero tolerance for guns on the premises. Does such a policy trump common sense? Said McLean, "If I can save someone's life, I put that above store policy."
McLean shares his fate with four Wal-Mart employees fired after ripping a loaded gun away from an alleged shoplifter threatening a co-worker.
What leads employers to fire heroes? Many employers ban guns in the workplace for the understandable reasons of preventing danger and avoiding liability. A zero tolerance policy leaves no room for nuance or varying interpretation; employees who break it can't argue that their conduct was justified under the circumstances.
Except. What happens when those wielding guns protect others from danger?
After assessing this situation, I believe AutoZone could have declared a policy exception, stating that this real-life drama wasn't a circumstance they envisioned when they crafted their policy. Surely saving his manager's life created an ethical and business justification for declaring a one-time policy exception for McLean. And did Wal-Mart really want four employees to watch a co-worker get shot in front of them?
Senior HR consultant Eddy Parham suggests that AutoZone reconsider its policies in light of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's general duty clause. Parham also points out that McClean only armed himself after the robbery began: "If AutoZone had a policy requiring employees to exit in case of fire and an employee grabbed an extinguisher from his car and returned to the store to put out the fire, would they have fired that employee?"
According to HR consultant Vivi Fenwick, in a similar situation Safeway let common sense prevail over policy when an employee attacked a customer who was beating his wife in their store. Although Safeway considered termination -- given their policy against employees hitting customers -- the police said the employee acted legally and Safeway retained the employee.
The moral? Zero-tolerance policies require situational analysis when special circumstances occur.
What about the concern that when managers allow a policy exception they create a precedent? Despite the fact that Sandy Hook Elementary School undoubtedly had a rule against any teacher or staff member assaulting a member of the public, we're all grateful that Principal Dawn Hochsprung lunged at a killer intent on a rampage. When real life creates exceptions to policies, managers need to critically look at their policies and decide -- do they need a rewrite? Could a policy say: Do not bring in guns and do not assault anyone -- unless your or another's life is absolutely in danger?
Finally, heroes deserve honor, not termination. As operations manager and consultant Mike Collins said, "If AutoZone gets held up again by a gun-wielding robber, they'll wish they'd kept the guy on staff."
Dr. Lynne Curry is a management/employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc. Send your questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter @lynnecurry10.