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Of vets, muffins and company policies

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in The Savvy Office Manager

What good is a company policy if you don’t follow it?

Of course, your organization crafts and adopts policies that must be followed by all. These policies aren’t vague; they’re clear and calculated and for good reason: If you don’t have them or don’t enforce them, chaos reigns.

Here’s a better question. What good are policies if you do follow them, but by doing so, cause more damage than if you make some exceptions here and there?

Ah, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Here’s a recent case worth pondering:

A 73-year-old Vietnam veteran was fired from his job at a Florida Cracker Barrel restaurant after he … drum roll … gave away a corn muffin to what appeared to be a homeless man.

Cracker Barrel has a company policy against employees handing out freebies or consuming food without paying for it, and understandably so. The company says it wasn’t the first time the vet, Joe, violated the policy.

So, out goes Joe. He understands why he was fired from his tad-above-minimum-wage job. He broke a rule.

He also said he would do it again, because “a moral issue comes in.” No hard feelings, Joe says. He’ll look for another job.

Here is Cracker Barrel’s statement on the matter:

“[Joe] has worked as a host at Cracker Barrel’s Sarasota store since April 2011. During the time he was employed, he violated the Company’s policies regarding consuming food without paying or giving away free food, on five separate occasions. [Joe] received multiple counselings and written warnings reminding him about the company’s policies and the consequences associated with violating them. On the fifth occasion, again per Company policy, [Joe] was terminated.

“Cracker Barrel is grateful for and honors [Joe’s] service to our country as we honor all service men and women and their families.”

Clearly, this is a PR nightmare for Cracker Barrel.

Who do you think people—customers or otherwise—will line up behind: Cracker Barrel, which has 70,000 employees in 630 locations, which grew revenues in fiscal 2013 by 4.6% to $2.6 billion (according to its own website) and trades on the Nasdaq under the ticker symbol CBRL … or Joe?

Here’s another question: The company had a sensible written policy and followed it … so which is worse, a PR problem that will likely disappear in the fast-moving news cycles, or a long-term HR problem when such a policy is adjusted as needed—thus opening the company to possible legal headaches down the line?

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Theresa Kasel July 13, 2014 at 4:42 pm

I can’t hold this decision against CB. I do hold it against Joe. Veteran or not, he was wrong and he’s admitted he’d do it again.

He knew he couldn’t give away food, but did so anyways. If he felt he had a moral imperative to feed a homeless person, it needed to come out of his pocket. By giving away the food without management’s permission, he was stealing from his employer — which is not moral.

I think CB was right to dismiss him since he was willfully violating the policy.

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LaTasha July 11, 2014 at 3:47 pm

If Joe wants to give away food, that’s fine. He just needs to pay for it. There’s nothing wrong with being generous, but you have to be generous with your own stuff, not with someone else’s. Once Joe pays for the muffin, he can do with it as he will, but giving away food (without permission and after repeatedly being told not to do it that way), is theft and Cracker Barrel had every right to fire him.

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Sharon July 8, 2014 at 8:22 pm

Joe was wrong to break the rules so many times and he lost his job because of it. I don’t think I would hire Joe into my business knowing what he did at CB. But, I like what Janet had to say, ” for the company to proactively support food banks, homeless shelters, and outreach programs to feed the poor in their community”, and I will add to inform their employees of what they are doing. Obviously, CB executives overlooked an opportunity to turn a negative situation into a grassroots-based positive one. There is more to this story than is being said and I would like to know what it is. As a CB customer, I am always going to remember this story every time I eat in or see a CB. We need to know more about why Joe did and kept on doing this. Hopefully, it is not a disregard for authority or company policies.

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Betty Ann July 8, 2014 at 10:20 am

I understand that Cracker Barrel warned this employee several times and that they have a policy in place. Perhaps its time to take another look at the policy and improve it. There is a human element here, a kindness to another human being. Under the circumstances all things considered, I think Joe did the kindest thing, the most humane thing and its a shame that instead of praising him for his kindness he is punished for it. What kind of message does that send. It would seem as a country over all we are becoming less caring and less kind.

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Anne July 7, 2014 at 5:51 pm

I’d like to argue in the employee’s favor, but he was warned multiple times. I think the policy itself needs to be rewritten, or if Joe wants to give away food, he logs it and pays for it. Or maybe they take the corn muffins that they are going to throw away and put them in a bag to give away.

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Janet July 7, 2014 at 11:24 am

Cracker Barrel’s policy is understandable, since it would be easy for employees to take advantage of a less stringent set of rules. However, as with all negative stories like this one, it will stay in the public’s memory longer than a news cycle, and leave a bad impression of a company’s attitudes toward “the little guy.” It would be a good idea, and a commendable thing to do, for the company to proactively support food banks, homeless shelters, and outreach programs to feed the poor in their community. In this way, they can give their employees who would like to help out the homeless a way to do so without resorting to violating company policy.

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Dave July 1, 2014 at 7:02 am

Employees who see tons of good food thrown away daily don’t see giving a muffin away as stealing any more than someone in an office who makes xerox copies of their own personal stuff. I believe the CB policy is intended to keep employees from letting friends eat free meals, etc. so it is needed but how about a more common sense approach? Take it out of his paycheck or move him temporarily to another job as ‘punishment’. The statement CB released made it worse and never should have been sent.

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Greg June 30, 2014 at 4:24 pm

You can’t bend the policy when a company is that big, period. Tens of thousands of employees, who knows how many of them terminated every day for various infractions–and you’re thinking of letting someone slide on a policy out of sympathy, and fear of what the public might think for about ten minutes? Can’t be done unless you want to wind up explaining that one decision every time someone wants to challenge being fired. It’s true, the public forgets stuff like this in a heartbeat, so better to stick to procedure so it doesn’t come back to haunt you. Cracker Barrel warned this man several times that he needed to stop. That was already too many and it opens the door to other employees being able to say, “You can’t just fire me–look how many chances you gave that guy!”

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