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HOW TO FIRE

Employees Fired for Pursuing Alleged Shoplifter

Should your company policy prohibit an employee from preventing crime?
SHOWN THE DOOR: Two Sprint store workers at the Cherry Creek Mall in Denver (pictured) were fired when, on their lunch break, they helped a security guard catch an alleged shoplifter.
 THE PURSUERS:  Paul Shoemaker and Mike McGee

THE PURSUERS: Paul Shoemaker and Mike McGee

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Two retail employees say they were fired last week after they chased down a suspected shoplifter.

Wait: The tale gets even loopier. The men – Paul Shoemaker and Mike McGee – apparently were on their break and chasing an alleged store shoplifter not in their store, but in an adjacent Apple Store.

The pair were heading out of the Sprint store where they used to work in Denver's Cherry Creek Mall when they came upon a frantic security guard in the hall. "[He] came right basically in front of us, and was like, 'Help me, Help me.' Out of breath. You could totally hear he was distraught," Shoemaker told Denver's 7News.

The pair pitched in to help capture the alleged shoplifter.

"It's the way I was raised as a kid," McGee said. "You see something that's going on wrong you step in and try to help whatever way you can."

The trouble started after the suspect was carted off. Sprint's corporate policy states that employees should not chase shoplifters, though the men argue they were on break and it wasn't even Sprint's merchandise they were seeking to retrieve. Sprint declined to comment, citing privacy concerns.

The firing isn't without precedent. In October Walmart fired an Ocala branch's loss prevention officer for chasing a man allegedly trying to steal golf balls.  And in August 2009, two college-age Best Buy employees were fired from a Broomfield, Colorado Best Buy after tackling an alleged shoplifter. A Best Buy spokeswoman said all employees "are aware, and trained, on the standard operating procedures for dealing with shoplifting or theft – which includes ceasing pursuit of a suspected shoplifter once they exit the store." This, she said, was for the safety of employees.

So should you fire an employee for pursuing a thief? Only you can decide the "should," but legally you are able to do so.

Employment lawyer Frank Steinberg blogged about the Walmart case that the chain "was clearly within its rights to set a policy on how shoplifting incidents were to be handled and to decide that the guard's violation of that policy warranted termination."

In fact, having a policy about how employees should handle shoplifting or any crime they witness on the job is seen as a smart move legally, because it can protect you from liability in the event someone is hurt. Judgments in these cases are rare, but can reach into the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.

In Texas, for example, a  shoplifter – his lawyer says he admits to the crime – is suing Walmart for $100,000 over the dislocated shoulder he claims employees inflicted on him.

Separately, the Houston Chronicle reported the company paid nearly $750,000 as part of a settlement to the family of a 30-year-old alleged shoplifter who died of a heart attack as employees tried to stop him. (The items he was accused of stealing: a package of diapers, a pair of sunglasses, a BB gun, and a package of BBs.)

Whether the good Samaritans in Denver deserved to be terminated is another question; how you train your staff to handle loss prevention is one of those tricky matters you probably never considered when you first started your business.

Share your most bizarre shoplifting tale in the comments section below.

Plus: Read our 7 Tips for Motivating Employees

Last updated: Apr 27, 2010

COURTNEY RUBIN

Inc. contributing editor Courtney Rubin was for five years a London-based staff writer for People magazine. Rubin, a former senior writer for Washingtonian magazine, has written for the New York Times magazine, Time, Marie Claire, and other publications. She is the author of The Weight-Loss Diaries.




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