Last week, convenience store clerk Eric Henderson was confronted by two female robbers in Pensacola, Florida who demanded that he hand over the cash in his Circle K register. Henderson grabbed the gun pointed at him by one of the women, slammed her to the ground, and then chased the two into the street where they fled in a getaway car.
Henderson was promptly fired by Circle K for violating a company policy that forbids heroics by employees in the middle of attempted robberies. Now Henderson has gone to the media, which is pointing out that he had been unemployed for two years (Occupy Circle K! But how long he had been out of work should have no bearing on the decision whether to to fire him) and that according to Henderson, the unarmed robber was urging her armed companion to shoot him. (Aside: Some of the news accounts also included this hilarious line: “The 30-year-old grabbed the gun pointed at him by one of the alleged robbers…“ Alleged robbers? Can we all agree that when there is an actual gun to be grabbed, the term “alleged” is idiotic? What else is someone who points a gun at a convenience store clerk? A practical joker? Some one who wants to trade a Glock for Twinkies?)
Your New Year’s Day Ethics Quiz: Was Circle K right to fire Eric?
Company policies against employees trying to foil robberies are wise, especially when weapons are involved. As with all policies, a “no-tolerance” approach to enforcement is foolish and unethical. A clerk alone in a store, as Henderson apparently was, is probably not risking anyone else’s life but his own, for example. (Or could an errant shot go through a window and injure a by-passer?) But is it fair or reasonable for Circle K to insist that its clerk follow the policy even if he hears one of the robbers say “Shoot him!“? No! This is a Golden Rule slam dunk: anyone who could muster the courage to fight back in that situation would have to do it. You would; I would; the Circle K execs would, and Henderson did. The policy does not and cannot apply when following it risks getting an employee killed. And note: the point of no-heroics policies are to avoid gunfire and violence. If following the policy will lead to gunfire, then the policy is no longer applicable. The new policy becomes: do what you have to do, as quickly and as well as you can do it.
This assumes, of course, that Henderson is telling the truth about the thief’s threat to shoot him. He’s been out of work, he’s desperate, he’s taken his firing to the court of public opinion, and he knows that corporations frequently reverse their decisions when public opinion and the media turns against them. Saying that he was fired even though he acted to protect himself is a wonderful, almost fool-proof way to make his position sympathetic and the Circle K management look like heartless suits. His bosses reviewed the security camera film: did it make them doubt his account? If so, Circle K’s ethical position is stronger.
But not much stronger. I don’t think that Henderson had to hear “Shoot him!” to justify his actions. There was a gun pointing at him, and that is threat enough. Maybe the women seemed nervous, or crazy, or under the influence of drugs. Maybe he just felt like they might shoot; that’s enough for me. Nobody can assess a situation in which another person has a gun pointed at him by a stranger and conclude, “He has no reason to be afraid.” Speak for yourself, buddy. If Henderson thought he was going to be shot, reasonably or not, he had the right to defend himself.
If the episode had ended in the store, with Henderson getting the gun and the women escaping, Circle K would be the clear villain for firing him. It didn’t end there, however. The clerk chased them into the street.
Yes indeed, that was reckless and irresponsible, especially if he was carrying the gun. It invited an exchange of gunfire, putting others at risk. Circle K could justify firing Henderson when his actions went beyond self-defense to pro-active measures best left to the police. It could, but it shouldn’t have. Policies should not be enforced in ignorance of human nature. After being threatened at gunpoint, foiling an armed robbery, and struggling with a potential assailant, Henderson must have received enough of an adrenaline jolt to raise the dead. It is completely understandable that he would have continued the chase after that; stupid, perhaps, but people in the midst of life-and-death combat are not noted for their cool detachment. Henderson had been through a lot. Nobody was hurt (yes, that’s moral luck again), and Circle K kept its money. The company could and should have made an exception for Henderson, acknowledging that he had to make tough decisions under stress and the company policy ceased to apply once he thought he was a second or two away from being the model for a chalk outline.
My answer: It was unfair and unreasonable for Circle K to fire the Eric Henderson.