Can you be fired for not defending yourself?

Business, Crime, Money, Rights

It’s a normal day at work, and you’re going about your business restocking the Doritos, when some guy charges at you with fire in his eyes and a knife in his hand. It’s not Spicy Nachos he’s after—it’s you.

Why? At that point, it doesn’t matter: your first instinct is to protect yourself. But then you remember your employee training—isn’t there a policy in place that explicitly states you must always avoid confrontation with an armed robber, regardless of the situation?

Confronting the miscreant is, thus, a fireable offense. But your personal safety is at risk. Do you protect yourself and put your job at risk, or stand down and possibly take a beating (or worse)?

Disarm a criminal, lose your job

Sounds ludicrous, right? An argument rooted in semantics, unhinged from reality? Maybe not. In 2011, three WalMart workers were questioning a shoplifting suspect who revealed he had a gun. The employees disarmed him and waited for police, then found themselves jobless. The fired employees subsequently sued for wrongful termination in federal court.

The Utah Supreme Court was asked to determine whether self-defense constitutes a substantial public policy exception to “at-will” employment, the doctrine that allows employers to dismiss employees for any reason. In September 2015, the Utah high court ruled in favor of the employees, stating that public policy regarding personal safety overrides Walmart’s policy concerning avoiding confrontations by employees. The ruling allows the case to proceed in federal court.

Employee protection vs. protecting yourself

The Walmart workers are not the only ones who have found themselves in court over this scenario. In West Virginia back in 2000, 7-Eleven retail store employee Antonio Feliciano disarmed a masked robber, and was fired soon after. 7-Eleven had the same type of policy as Walmart, prohibiting employees from subduing or otherwise interfering with a store robbery.

In that case, just as in Utah, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that defending against lethal, imminent danger constitutes a public policy exception to the right of employers to dismiss employees who work at will. The case, however, eventually went to a jury, which despite the WVSC ruling ended up finding in favor of 7-Eleven.

Best intentions

The gray area in cases like these is how employees, in a split second, need to determine if they can disengage from a violent situation or if they need to stand up and fight for their lives. The standard self-defense approach is always to comply with robbers, giving them what they want. “Stuff” can be replaced; you can’t be.

But what if the criminal is intent on physical harm? Defending yourself is basic instinct. Should you be fired for that?

It makes perfect sense why employers would have a policy against employees confronting armed robbers, which, after all, is a tricky business. A lot can go wrong. Creating a blanket non-engagement policy arguably helps keep employees safe, while removing any misplaced incentive on the employee’s part to protect the company’s assets.

Still, employees who have to make an instantaneous decision about their lives probably shouldn’t be beholden to a zero-tolerance policy.

The ruling in the Walmart case means that this issue can now move to federal court for further consideration. Employers and employees will be watching closely.