Policies are the rules that guide all organizations. They are the foundation in which to conduct business, to research new and innovative ideas, and guide employees into ethical decisions. When violated, the consequences can be quite severe for an organization in this age of excessive litigation. As a consequence, organizations will usually not focus on a common sense decision, but a decision that gets what they want, but at the lowest risk of legal repercussions. However, sometimes HR departments need to apply a concept of right versus wrong instead of basing a policy based on degrees of litigation risk.
While perusing the internet this morning, I came across an article that describes a lifeguard that was terminated. This individual was not accused of not focusing on his job, nor was he accused of being irresponsible in his actions while on duty. Instead he was fired for jumping into action to save someone in trouble, but was outside of his assigned coverage zone. The contacted company who is responsible for providing and training lifeguards cited that Tomas Lopez was terminated for vacating his zone of coverage, even though it was to lend aid to someone in trouble. The company went on to cite that Mr. Lopez violated company rules which could result in “liability issues”.
Sometimes companies should be held liable for irresponsible decisions that have been made. History includes many examples which includes companies who knowingly produces a harmful product that the consumers are not made aware of or may cause problems due to inadequate safety standards which cause large-scale disasters. In this type of situation, the company at fault should be held liable due to irresponsible and reckless behavior that causes unnecessary harm to people. If management willingly overlooks safety rules or obvious design flaws and moves forward with it, these companies should be held accountable.
Common sense and ethical decisions must be made, even in light of policies or even in regards to increases in risk for litigation. In this example, Mr. Lopez sprang into action when he saw someone in trouble. The swimmer in distress may have been out of his zone of coverage, but why should that matter. Did Mr. Lopez do the right thing? Certainly so! What if the distressed swimmer was only five yards out of the coverage zone, what about one yard? The end result is that someone was in trouble and could have drowned, but listening to the company representative, Mr. Lopez was at fault for leaving his zone. Was he supposed to ignore someone in trouble because the company could face liability problems due to his zone being vacated? In a black and white, overly simplified world, Mr. Lopez did break the company policy for zone coverage responsibilities.
This problem seems to be increasing significantly in today’s business and corporate world. Instead of making the right and correct decision in regards to morality and ethics, decisions are based on the changes of litigation. In the case of the lifeguard, the company does not seem to focus their efforts on saving someone at the expense of leaving a zone uncovered while someone else is saved. The black and white nature of their decision to terminate Mr. Lopez takes an issue and dumbs it down to the point of absurdity. Instead of making a courageous decision to give Mr. Lopez praise for saving the life, they terminate him based on a technicality. In light of this company who terminated Mr. Lopez, did they factor liability issues in if the family of some swimmer, had they drowned? For example, Mr. Lopez could have stayed in his zone and followed procedures, but if the family had information that a lifeguard did not come the aid, what type of liability issues would come into play in that situation? The world is not black and white, but is many shades of gray. Violating a policy that dictates that employees not take property off the premise is one thing. Not every policy is simple, and in regards to this specific situation, violating a policy to save a life is drastically different from violating a policy against removing company property from the building.
In reality, Mr. Lopez will be much better off having been terminated by this company. It may be a loss of income in the short-term, but many people are learning of his heroic actions, and will greatly benefit him in the long-run. But in reality, this is an example of organizations hiding behind liability or litigation issues instead of doing the right thing. What the company should be looking at now is not to hand out punishment for someone who technically violated a policy, but to re-evaluate their policies to improve the lifeguard coverage zones to allow for overlapping and increased coverage. Instead, they blindly follow a policy, even at the expense of common sense. The world does not need people who make decisions like this. Cowards will always hide behind policies that violate common sense and in some cases ethics, and will always hand out punishments because they lacked the backbone to either make the same decision or support those who actually make the right and courageous decisions. The world needs less litigation and more standards that are based on proper ethics and common sense.
Mr. Lopez, you made the right decision and it will serve you well in the long-run. For the company who terminated him, shame on you.