Happy 2012! Your New Year’s Ethics Quiz: “Firing Super-Clerk”

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 If following the policy will lead to gunfire, then the policy is no longer applicable.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.

14 thoughts on “Happy 2012! Your New Year’s Ethics Quiz: “Firing Super-Clerk”

  1. “No-tolerance” policies are very often (maybe usually) “foolish and unethical” in application/enforcement. Don’t get me started.

    Regarding adrenaline and human nature — about 30 years ago, one of my female friends and I went to a fast food restaurant late at night after seeing a double-feature at the movies. Two guys with guns came up to us as we exited the car, said they were “the police,” and told us to give them our bags. Stunned, we did as we were told. As they began to run away, I realized –Duh! — that we had been robbed at gunpoint. I yelled after them, “Hey!” They turned, and even in the darkness I could tell that they had pointed the guns at us. I backed down and they turned and ran. Stupid. What was I thinking? I wasn’t thinking. Outrage had set off a firestorm of emotion chemicals and I reacted. Still stupid, but probably human nature. I still tell myself how lucky I was that they didn’t shoot my stupid head off.

  2. Jack, I rarely disagree with you, but I find myself unsure about this one.

    The policy forbids heroics, but your argument (and the clerk’s own testimony) is that he had a reasonable fear for his life. But wouldn’t everyone with a gun pointed at them demanding money feel that their life is justifiably threatened? I can’t agree with the implication that someone has to wait for a robber to debate whether or not they should treat you as a target before feeling that they are at the brink of the Pearly Gates.

    So it would seem, based just on that conclusion, that Circle K’s policy is useless whenever a weapon is employed, which is most of the time. When you are on the other end of a lethal weapon, it is quite rational to assume that the other person is willing to follow through through to the end of that threat whether or not you comply with his demand. Given this, it seems the mitigating circumstance is the absence of innocent bystanders.

    So assuming my reasoning is sound, such policies should never be enforced if nobody other than the robber and clerk are in danger in the event the affair goes south. I think that’s kind of questionable. A company has a vested interest in making sure its employees don’t get themselves killed. Brave, dead employees still get them sued, policy or no.

    This is an ethical dilemma for Circle K, and it is not as much of a slam dunk, in my view, as you imply. This circumstance may have been extraordinary in some ways, but Circle K needs to be able to point out to future employees that it really means it when it says you should not interfere with a robbery, not only because they are willing to accept the loss, but because the subsequent losses to the company are possibly even greater in terms of litigation and public relations, both legitimate interests of the company.

    I am sad for the man, and I don’t blame him for taking it to the public. But Circle K should probably just accept the hit to publicity, because if this becomes justifiable in every armed robbery where there aren’t innocent bystanders, as you have persuasively argued, it could wind up costing them way more than a little bad PR. In fact, they should probably just pay the man for his bravery, thank him, but send him firmly on his way.

    It isn’t a matter of zero tolerance in this case — it’s more of a slippery slope.

    • Well, You may not agree with me, but I think I agree with you, at least in principle.

      I also agree with the no heroics rules. But I don’t see how a company could make them more specific—“Ok, you can fight back to keep yourself from being shot, but not stabbed, at least if its a small knife, and yes, try to stop the guy with the bomb unless you think iots big enough to blow up the store—big clubs, yes, little sticks, maybe….yes to Ninjas, no to red belts in karate..” without drawing absurd discretionary lines. Paying the guy for being heroic but firing him for violating policy seems to be consciously avoiding making a choice—if he’s good enough to reward, then he’s not bad enough to fire. Right?

      It’s not a slam dunk. I agree.

      • Paying the guy for being heroic but firing him for violating policy seems to consciously avoiding making a choice—if he’s good enough to reward, then he’s not bad enough to fire. Right?

        I would not say that’s strictly true. He deserves a reward for saving the company money. He deserves to be fired for violating their policy.

        Can both happen? Yes.

        I do see where you are coming from, and it is a reasonable position. If it were me, I would be proud of myself, but move on, and I would not blame the company. If I were the decision-maker in the company, I would probably make an exception and try to keep it quiet, and hope for the best.

        But I guess what I’m saying is that I can’t blame them for not doing that, either.

  3. I am a family member of Eric’s and some details need to be cleared up because this story keeps getting reposted and exaggerted. The first detail is that Eric did not chase them into the street. He got the gun from the girl, they ran out of the store, and he went to the front door to lock it to secure the store and call police. Second, the news asked about his employment situation he did not volunteer that info to gain sympathy. Third, Eric didn’t refuse to give the money the first demand from the girl was for him to get on the ground as she had a gun pointed at his head he was not behind the register he was mopping. Fourth, the girl turned away and that is when he grabbed her he didn’t grab a gun pointed at him. Finally, I’m sure that “senstionalizing” the story wasn’t on his mind in the few minutes after when he was reporting it to the police in reference to the girl yelling “shoot him”.

    • Thanks, Crystal. This is very helpful. Note that I didn’t accuse Eric of using his employment history to gain sympathy, but mentioned that media reports have used it that way. I don’t doubt Eric’s account, my point is that it is the most sympathetic version whether it is true or not, and thus hard to confirm on faith.

      If he didn’t chase them, then I don’t see how the company can justify firing him.

  4. Unless he really overreacted, I think firing him was unethical. Policies like this are usually drafted by well-meaning people who don’t fully understand the situation. The policies are then applied by people who are only interested in applying policy.

    When I was in college, I worked at McDonald’s. The employees sent out to compact trash at night were being harassed and/or beaten up by groups of teenagers. We had a store meeting about it. The managers said that from now on, TWO people would be sent out to compact the trash at night. I asked them why they wanted TWO employees to get beaten up each night instead of one (the groups of teens were 6-10 in number). The managers got in a huddle and then said that from now on, the person compacting trash would wear a headset. I asked why they wanted to listen while the person was being beaten. The head manager was now pretty annoyed at me and asked me how I would handle the situation. I told her that they never beat me up because I always took the freezer axe with me when I compacted trash. The managers then decided to insist on an police presence to deal with the violent teenagers.

    My managers weren’t insensitive, they weren’t trying to be mean, they just hadn’t been there. Circle K needs to have people who have worked in their stores and been held up a few times make these policies and administer them. That may sound unreasonable, but these types of stores get held up all the time. It isn’t like this is an unusual occurrence. Their upper management should understand what goes on in their stores and what type of reaction is reasonable (even if it may not be the wisest).

  5. The problem here is using the corporate legal team to concoct a policy to eliminate or reduce liability. they end up with a policy that that is intended to replace common sense. I see it as a double-barreled failure.

    Guns are used in robberies to create the fear in the victim necessary to get the money…. Once the robber “drops Roscoe” on the clerk, Circle K is no longer in the equation as far as safety goes. Acts taken in self-defense are not unethical.

    Someone mentioned third parties in the store. In 25 years of urban policing I have seen entire store-fulls of people clerks and shoppers alike on the receiving end of the shooting… A clerk who complies and goes to the floor as asked (??) may be jeopardizing the customers anyway. Robbers do not like witnesses.

    If Circle K wanted all to be safe they would hire additional clerks or security officers.

    There was a very good book about replacing common sense with rules… its called “The Death of Common Sense”– I wish I could recall the author’s name at this late hour.

  6. No policy is justifiabled that places a person in a position where his life is in peril, but forbids him the right to defend his life. Defending one’s life, the lives of others or his property is the unalienable right of any free citizen. Circle K may have the right to fire an employee for whatever reason they wish, but they must also answer to their clientele; a great many of whom would have likely done little different under the circumstances. I might also point out that any man who voluntarily places his life in the hands of armed felons when he doesn’t have to is a suicidal fool of the first order. In summary, I’d invoke and old and wise saying that directly applies to such circumstances. “I’d rather be judged by twelve than carried by six.”

  7. “Zero Tolerance” policies of anything are usually MINDLESS — their apparent aim is to spare their authors the discomfort of thinking. (Of course there are some exceptiions).

    In this case, I would say the Circle K execs were “Anal Retentives” (that’s a euphemism for “Tight Asses”).

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