Labor and Employment

It Doesn't Always Pay to be a Shoplifter Superhero

Shoplifting costs everyone. Retailers lose millions of dollars each year to thieves, and they raise their prices to recoup the losses. That means more money out your pocket. Sometimes, employees take action and try to stop the theft. Employees need to use caution, not only to protect their personal safety, but also to protect their jobs.

Wal-Mart Employee Fired for Trying to Prevent Theft

Retail giant Wal-Mart has the slogan: "Lowest prices always. Always." But what's their take on stopping shoplifters? "Don't stop them. Ever." Heather Ravenstein, a customer service manager at a Wal-Mart in Wichita, Kansas, tried to stop a customer who set off a store alarm while quickly walking out of the store with a $600 computer.

She offered to take the sensor off the computer box as soon as the shopper showed her his receipt. The shopper refused, punched and kicked her, and then dropped the computer. The assistant manager thanked Heather for her efforts.

The next day, however, she was fired - it was against Wal-Mart policy for anyone except a manager or someone in the "asset protection" department to try to stop customers from stealing.

Termination Policies

Many employers have specific written policies about employee discipline, usually in employee handbooks. Often these policies spell out the discipline or consequences for certain offenses. Serious offenses often result in firing, even the first time they're committed.

Other offenses, such as failing to report to work and not calling in, might first result in a verbal warning, then a written warning for a second offense and a suspension or termination only after that.

Wal-Mart's Policy

Heather was told that Wal-Mart's policy had no gray area and required immediate termination for trying to stop the customer. A spokesperson for Wal-Mart defended the firing, stating that Heather's actions put her safety and the safety of customers at risk and violated Wal-Mart policy. She said the policy is necessary to ensure that customers are treated properly.

Legal Risks to Employers

Employers are cautious about what their employees do because employers may be legally responsible for the harm caused by their employees' actions. Customers may hold the employer liable when they're injured by employees or wrongfully detained by employees who are suspected shoplifting, for example.

While it's possible to hold the employees legally responsible for their actions, employers are often the target of lawsuits because they usually have bigger insurance policies than their employees.

Employers Avoid the Risk

For retailers such as Wal-Mart, the risk of a customer being harmed or subjected to humiliation or embarrassment might be worse and more costly than the loss of the store item. For that reason, they make certain management employees and in-store security personnel responsible for handing customer-related incidents.

It's also important that they enforce their rules and policies, no questions asked. This helps them avoid other legal problems. For instance, if a few months before Heather's incident, Wal-Mart didn't fire employee who tried to stop a thief, Heather may have had a legal claim against Wal-Mart for wrongful termination or perhaps discrimination.

While you may have good intentions by attempting to stop a shoplifter yourself - employee or customer- it's best to report it to a store manager or security person and let them take care of the suspect - even if you're trying to do your civic duty.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Do I need to have signed a copy of my employee handbook for it to be binding?
  • What if a policy is not in the handbook, but then something happens and my employer changes it? Do I need to have notice of the change for it to be effective?
  • What happens if my employer refuses to give me an employee handbook?
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