business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

There have been a whole bunch of stories in recent days that have concerned people working at retail.


• A transgender woman in Arizona had to deal with a CVS pharmacist who refused to fill a prescription for hormone therapy, but also refused to return the prescription or provide a reason for why it was being denied. The New York Times reports that “based on federal and some state laws, CVS does allow a pharmacist to refuse to fill specific medications if doing so would violate the person’s religious convictions … But the pharmacist would be required to notify the company in advance so it could ensure that the patient would promptly receive the medicine.” CVS has said that it no longer employs the pharmacist.

• A female employee at a Jacksonville, Florida, Burger King lost her job after she stepped in while off duty to help when lines at her store were moving too slowly. According to Fox News, “Witnesses say they watched the woman who was photographed wearing a tank top and shorts  leave the slow-moving line and step into the food prep area, where she proceeded to slap on a pair of gloves before getting down to work … Burger King said that the woman was an off-duty employee, but confirmed that the incident should not have happened. It also stated that the manager, and the woman, had been fired.”

• The Washington Post has the story of Maurice Rucker, a 60-year-old African American working at a Home Depot in Albany, New York. Two weeks ago, a man and his unleashed dog approached the checkout lane where Rucker was working; Rucker reportedly asked the man to put his dog on a leash, which prompted the man to hurl racist invective at Rucker.

Home Depot’s first response was to fire Rucker, a 10-year-employee, for “failing to disengage and alert management about a customer confrontation.” Subsequently, after media attention to what happened, Home Depot backed off and offered Rucker his job back … but Rucker has declined to return.

To be clear, these scenarios are all very different.

• I’m glad the CVS pharmacist got fired. While he may not have been wiling to explain his problem to the transgender woman, it isn’t hard to imagine what his issues are. But let’s be clear - his issues don’t matter. Fill the damned prescription and keep your mouth shut.

• I get why the Burger King employee got canned, but I can’t help but think that a lot of retail businesses would love to have someone on staff who is willing to jump in and help out even when off-duty. Maybe they could’ve offered some sort of food safety re-education instead of a pink slip? But if that’s not enough, I would think that this woman’s actions could serve as a positive calling card when looking for another job.

• As for Rucker … nobody should have to put up with this crap. I think Home Depot should’ve been a lot faster to tell the customer in question that he and his dog should find someplace else to shop.

The scenarios may be different, but I do think they all illustrate the fact that the retail environment is becoming a war zone, where different sides of the culture wars can clash in a way that can turn ugly.

Retail executives have to be prepared for this … they have to make sure that their people are trained in how to handle difficult, sometimes explosive situations.

To my mind, as complex as situations may be and comprehensive as the training needs to be, there out to be a couple of basic rules.

• First, employees need to know that they are there to take care of customers. Selling them something does not require approval … it just requires an understanding that they are in the service business. If they’re not prepared for that, then it probably makes sense to get a job in another business.

• Second, employees need to know that when they are faced with customers who act in a racist/misogynist/homophobic manner, management always will come down on the side of the employee. Always. Steps will be taken to minimize the in-store drama, but maintaining a friendly, nurturing workplace isn’t just a sentiment included in a mission statement. It is a real commitment.

It’ll never be as simple as just saying these things. Life is complicated, and people are complex. But businesses have to pledge to keep their Eyes Open to every situation, and to always endeavor to do the right thing. Always.
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