A question for US employers: How would you treat a ‘hero’ employee at your organization?
If an employee has reacted to exceptional circumstances by stepping outside of their day-to-day responsibilities in order to help others, would your first response be to fire them?
It seems there’s been a trend over recent months for employers to be tough on ‘hero’ employees. Whether it was for stopping armed robberies, wrangling sharks or saving drowning victims, each of the employees spotlighted below got the axe for their heroic actions.
But is this the correct response to employee heroism?
These employees also became media darlings, folk heroes and award recipients, while each employer’s reputation risked being tarnished in the media. So could it be a case of fire ‘hero’ employees in haste, repent at your leisure?
Here we look at some notable recent examples of employee heroism that resulted in the hero employee getting the axe and provide guidance on how US employers faced with such situations might mitigate the risk of negative media exposure when dealing with hero employees.
Have you encountered any workplace heroism that could also be disciplined as workplace misconduct? Please get in touch and let us know!
Hero Termination Story (1): Foiling Fake Beard Banditry
Air Force veteran, soon-to-be dad and AutoZone employee Devin McLean was at work in York County, Virginia last November when the fabled Fake Beard Bandit entered the store. The Bandit had successfully eluded federal and local authorities after robbing 30 stores in the area. During the robbery, McLean somehow made it to his truck in the parking lot, retrieved a gun and returned to the store. The Fake Beard Bandit fled the scene.
Although McLean was hailed as a hero by his supervisor for foiling the attempted robbery, he was fired for violating AutoZone’s weapons in the workplace policy. However, McLean received the Sheriff’s Citizens Accommodation Award for his actions against the Fake Beard Bandit.
Hero Termination Story (2): Wrangling Australian Sharks
A 62-year-old grandfather working for a Welsh children’s charity, Paul Marshallsea, took an extended sick leave from work due to stress-related issues. Marshallsea traveled to Australia with his wife (also an employee of the charity) for a vacation while still on sick leave. During his trip, Marshallsea was caught on camera wrestling a shark away from children swimming in the ocean.
Marshallsea’s employer fired him, citing his impressive physical prowess in shark-wrangling as inconsistent with his claims of sickness. For good measure, the charity’s trustees fired Marshallsea’s wife too.
Hero Termination Story (3): Swimming Against the Tide
Last summer, lifeguard Tomas Lopez was at his post in Hallandale Beach, Florida when a beachgoer alerted him that a man was drowning. Although the swimmer in distress was technically outside of the lifeguard’s assigned beach zone, Lopez pulled the drowning man ashore.
Lopez’s employer, a city contractor, had implemented a policy that prohibited employee lifeguards from tending to an emergency outside of their specified zones. Under the policy, lifeguards aware of such an emergency were to call 911 (which, as a practical matter, could be construed as tantamount to doing nothing.)
Lopez’s employer promptly fired him for violating company policy. However, Hallandale Beach awarded Lopez a key to the city and canceled his employer’s contract of nine years. Faced with withering media scrutiny, Lopez’s employer offered him his old job back. (He declined.)
Employers: “We Don’t Need Another Hero”
In all three situations, the employer faced intense scrutiny due to a swift termination decision. So what steps should an employer take to mitigate negative media exposure when dealing with an errant, yet heroic, employee? Consider the following actions.
• Train employees on workplace violence policies. Workplace violence can be prevalent in some industries, such as the retail sector. Although an employee may instinctively wish to respond to an attempted workplace robbery by brandishing a personal weapon, they should receive training on the possible hazards of making such a choice, including any risks to co-workers, customers and bystanders.
• Enact a Paid Time Off (PTO) policy. Instead of having a separate vacation and sick leave policy, an employer could simply implement a Paid Time Off (PTO) policy. This eliminates any need to justify an absence due to sickness, so long as the employer’s practice complies with any applicable local or state sick leave laws.
• Explore discipline options. In all three situations, the heroic employees showed genuine commitment to their organizations’ missions (e.g., ensuring workplace safety, saving children, assisting swimmers in distress). Termination need not be the only option for employers when faced with these types of employee misconduct.
• Review termination decisions before implementation. Employers may regret firings made in haste. In addition, an employer’s expressions of contrition and accompanying offers of rehire may ring hollow if made in response to a public outcry. When handling employee misconduct, an employer should evaluate the circumstances by conducting an internal investigation and suspending the employee pending its outcome. Any resulting termination decision should be reviewed by another supervisor or manager.
By taking these proactive steps, employers can make wayward employees heroes in the workplace. Or, at the very least, they can avoid becoming media villains.