Home Opinion/Commentary Masked defenders: Walmart Canada steps up, takes heat off employees in human rights fight

Masked defenders: Walmart Canada steps up, takes heat off employees in human rights fight

by Todd Humber

Retail giants are often viewed as villains. But a recent move by Walmart Canada to defend two of its employees in a workplace human rights complaint is worth lauding — and exploring.

Rewind the clock to December 2020, amid the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. At a Walmart store in British Columbia, a customer, citing a disability, refused to wear a face mask as required by store policy that was created in the wake of the province declaring a state of emergency.

The woman was approached by the assistant store manager and asked to either purchase a face shield, which wouldn’t block her breathing in any manner, or leave the store. The customer refused and left.

“Walmart says (the customer) refused to wear a shield but did not explain why. It says (she) pushed her cart towards (the employee), telling him that he would have to put away her items,” the tribunal wrote in the ruling,

“Walmart says (the employee) then asked her to leave the store, wished her a great evening and she turned around to gesture at him with her middle finger.”

The following day, the customer called the store manager to complain about the interaction with the employee. That conversation got a little heated, and the customer filed a human rights complaint against the assistant store manager, the store manager, and Walmart.

At the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, Walmart applied to have the complaint against its two employees dismissed, arguing that it did not further the purpose of the human rights code to allow it proceed against the individuals.

The company argued that it has the capacity to fulfill any remedies the tribunal might order against the workers.

“Walmart adopts the acts and omissions of the (employees) as their own,” the tribunal said.

The customer pushed back on that notion, arguing that the individual employees were the “directing minds” behind the decision not to accommodate her disability, which included chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

But the tribunal sided with Walmart, noting that the workers were simply doing their jobs and nothing in the nature of their conduct rose to a level of “personal culpability that requires individual responsibility.”

They were, in short, enforcing a policy and were not accused of something outside the course of normal behaviour — like sexual harassment, the tribunal pointed out.

While the customer argued that the employees’ actions left her feeling humiliated, the conduct — if it indeed is a human rights violation, which remains to be tried — can be addressed by a decision and remedy against Walmart itself.

The tribunal removed the individual employees from the complaint, and the case against the company is proceeding.

The ruling underscores a crucial point: While individual accountability is important, in cases like these holding the institution responsible is more practical and less likely to exacerbate personal conflicts or animosity. It doesn’t punish individuals for carrying out their duties under complex and stressful conditions.

While the memory is thankfully fading somewhat as time goes on, it is worth remembering that the mask issue and the associated mandates were extremely stressful for front-line retail workers.

They didn’t come up with the rules, but they had to enforce them during a prolonged public health crisis. Walmart’s decision to stand behind its employees and put the legal spotlight on itself instead is commendable.

This approach not only protects its employees from the personal and financial burdens of legal challenges but also sends a message about the company’s priorities: Walmart values its workers enough to absorb the “heat” from confrontations that arise from enforcing company policies.

This stance is particularly significant in the retail sector, where front-line workers often face the brunt of customer dissatisfaction, sometimes escalating to confrontations.

Employers across industries should take a page from Walmart’s playbook, recognizing that protecting employees isn’t just about physical safety, which is paramount, but also about safeguarding them from the undue stress and potential legal fallout of policy enforcement.

In challenging times, a company’s greatest strength is often shown not just through its customer service or profit margins, but through its unwavering support for those who serve on the front lines.

On that front, Walmart did the right thing.

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