Zero Tolerance for Zero-Tolerance Policies: In Wake of the Lululemon Firings
Warren Workman 06/09/2023
If you’re not as engrossed in HR matters as I am, you might still be familiar with the recent incident involving two Lululemon employees who were terminated in April. The story has garnered national attention, and while it has been covered extensively, I wanted to offer my HR perspective on the situation.
In April, two individuals wearing masks and hoodies entered the Lululemon store in Peachtree Corners, Georgia (I love peaches as much if not more than the next person, but why must everything be named Peachtree in the Atlanta area? But that’s a rant for another day.) These thieves swiftly grabbed as much merchandise as possible and made a quick exit. This type of theft, known as “organized retail theft,” is unfortunately not new and has been a recurring issue in the retail sector. However, it has become more pervasive and has garnered greater attention.
These thieves typically sell the stolen goods at flea markets and online platforms like eBay and Amazon. In this particular instance at Lululemon, one employee confronted the thieves at the front of the store yelling for them to “Get out”, while another employee recorded the incident with a cell phone and followed the thieves outside. Both employees were subsequently terminated due to Lululemon’s zero-tolerance policy on engaging with thieves.
Let me clarify that there are several valid reasons for having such a policy, particularly with regard to the safety of both customers and employees. Lululemon CEO Calvin McDonald addressed this concern in a statement, citing instances in which employees were injured or even killed while intervening in thefts. However, McDonald also stated, “In this particular case, we have a zero-tolerance policy that we train our educators on around engaging during a theft. Why? Because we put the safety of our team and of our guests front and center. It’s only merchandise.”
McDonald further mentioned that the employees “knowingly broke the policy.” So, on the surface, this seems like a straightforward situation where the company’s policy was violated, resulting in termination. However, here lies my contention—I despise zero-tolerance policies. They remove judgment and discretion from the equation. One of my HR mentors once told me that policies should be specific enough to be enforceable yet flexible enough to consider the interests of both the employee and the company. This principle has stayed with me throughout my career. Despite HR’s negative reputation, our role extends beyond disciplining and terminating employees for minor infractions.
With that said, I do not consider this situation a minor infraction, but does it warrant termination? When discussing the Lululemon incident with a friend, I challenged her to provide an example where a zero-tolerance policy would be appropriate. We agreed on one thing—workplace violence. Any instance of actual or threatened violence in the workplace should be a one-way ticket out. However, you might be thinking, “What about harassment and discrimination?”
When dealing with cases of harassment and discrimination, two factors should guide our response: severity and pervasiveness. Severity, such as a clear-cut quid pro quo situation, such as sex in exchange for employment, or instances where the N-bomb is dropped on an African-American employee. These are undeniably severe situations with no room for redemption. On the other hand, we might encounter scenarios where an employee compliments a colleague’s appearance in a way that was not appreciated, or a manager uses a racial/ethnic stereotype thinking they are using it in a positive context. In such cases, we can take appropriate steps to prevent a recurrence.
Pervasiveness comes into play when a situation doesn’t meet the severity criteria. We need to assess whether it is an isolated incident that can be remedied or an ongoing issue. If employee A tells employee B they look nice today once, it should be addressed but likely does not warrant termination. However, if it happens repeatedly despite being informed of its unwelcome nature, it becomes pervasive and could lead to termination. Therefore, a zero-tolerance approach is not suitable in such cases.
Now let’s circle back to the Lululemon story. Admittedly, I am not privy to the employees’ prior performance or disciplinary history, so let’s assume they were generally good employees. For employee 1, who confronted the thieves verbally, my suggestion would be to document the situation, provide remedial training and hold a one-on-one meeting to explain the policy and expectations for future incidents. If there were additional factors in their employment record that would sway my decision, termination might be warranted.
Employee 2, who recorded the incident and followed the thieves, presents a more complex situation that requires further information. The act of recording the theft might have provoked the thieves to become violent, and following them outside could have also escalated the situation. Therefore, a comprehensive understanding of what this employee did is crucial. Based on that information, I might be persuaded to terminate their employment. However, if I felt that their actions would not have incited violence, I could consider applying the same disciplinary measures as with employee 1.
In summary, zero tolerance equals zero common sense. Policies should strike a balance between specificity and flexibility, ensuring they can be enforced while considering the unique circumstances of each case. Taking a more nuanced approach to incidents like the one at Lululemon can lead to better outcomes for both employees and the company.