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OK to Fire Workers for 'Good Samaritan' Deeds?

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

Doing good deeds in an emergency situation isn't exactly bad behavior. But small business owners can indeed legally fire workers for being "Good Samaritans."

Michigan retailer Meijer tested this theory in mid-November when it fired 62-year-old employee David Bowers for leaving his post as a greeter to help a man extinguish a car fire, reports The Associated Press.

Is it OK for your business follow suit and terminate do-gooders?

Restrictions on Firing At-Will Employees

Most small business owners staff their businesses with at-will employees, meaning that employees can be fired on the whim of the employer -- in most cases without just cause.

There are a few exceptions, however. An employer cannot fire any employee for discriminatory reasons or as retaliation for whistleblowing. If employees feel that they have been fired due to their race, religion, sex, or in response to reporting the company's illegal activities, a wrongful termination suit is likely to follow.

Assuming your home state places no additional conditions on firing employees, you should be able to terminate an at-will employee for any non-discriminatory, non-retaliatory reason. And that includes leaving one's post to do good deeds.

In Bowers' case, Meijer implied that the store greeter violated "well-established safety procedures for emergency situations," which in addition to Bowers' at-will status, made the Good Samaritan legally eligible for termination.

You Can Fire, but Should You?

Although the law may be on your side in firing a Good Samaritan, customer goodwill is not likely to follow. Retail giant Walmart felt the sting of public outrage when it fired an employee for assisting an assault victim in a store parking lot.

Walmart later changed its mind and offered the man his job back, reports USA Today -- but the PR damage had already been done. And most small business owners cannot afford a suckerpunch to their image like Walmart can.

That isn't to say that firing a Good Samaritan is out of the question. There are certainly scenarios where Good Samaritan action can leave other duties untended -- like a lifeguard who abandons his post. Employees who are tasked with protecting customers may be placing them at risk by abandoning their posts.

This probably wasn't the case with a retail greeter like Bowers, and some internal company reprimand probably would've sufficed.

If you have questions about how to deal with a difficult firing decision, consider reaching out to an experienced employment attorney near you.

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