Thursday, July 5, 2012

Stay Fired, Lopez

Tomas Lopez is a lifeguard with a conscience.

Monday, July 02, Lopez was alerted by beachgoers that a man was in distress and needed his assistance.  Lopez immediately arranged for other lifeguards to cover his station and ran to help.

Typical everyday drama, right?  Handsome young fellow pelting across the sand to provide CPR or first aid.  Except there's a twist to this story:  Lopez got fired for doing his job.

These things don't happen in a vacuum, of course.  Lopez wouldn't get canned just for saving somebody.  It turns out that two pertinent things happened in conjunction with this event: the man in distress was way outside his zone - completely outside the zone that is covered by the company that provides the lifeguard services and is Lopez' employer - and Lopez had to leave his station to provide the assistance.

It's one thing that he had to leave his station.  Ideally, there's two lifeguards at every station: one to provide assistance when needed, the other to continue watching the water while one is away.  Lopez says his station was covered while he was away.

But Lopez wasn't just outside his zone.  He sprinted a full quarter-mile to go aid the victim.  The victim had already been brought up to the beach by the time Lopez arrived, but Lopez, along with the assistance of an off-duty nurse, stabilized the victim and monitored his condition until an ambulance arrived.  Then he returned to his duty station, filled out an incident report, and was fired.

According to the company's spokesman, it was because he had violated company rules against leaving his station.  Lopez, in his own defense, is unrepentant.  He's quoted in a Miami Herald article as saying, "...someone needed my help.  I wasn't going to say no."  Good on you, Lopez.  That's the right attitude.

The company's defense that Lopez' actions opened them up to liabilities because of the unguarded station is weak.  Lopez says other lifeguards watched his station while he went to assist the swimmer who was swimming in an unprotected area.  Here's where the relationship breaks down.

Lopez is hired as a lifeguard.  Thankfully this young man - he's only 21 - has ironclad principles and stands by them.  He's a lifeguard, someone's in trouble, he's helping out.  That's the equation he works under.  Not exactly in his area?  Okay - he's going after the trouble regardless.  But the company's policy of punishing workers who deliver above and beyond the sharply delineated boundaries of its service area is caddish to the extreme.

There are three ways this could have played out.  Let's look at them:

Lopez does nothing
Imagine the PR nightmare for both the company and Lopez if, suffering and drowning a mere fifty yards beyond the service boundaries, Lopez had adhered to company policy and not moved to provide assistance to a drowning victim?  He would be covered by company policy, but would suffer dreadfully in the public eye...and the company would, too.  It's slightly less damning if it happens a solid quarter-mile away, but still not great.

Lopez acts and is punished
This is where we are now.  Lopez is a hero but Jeff Ellis and Associates is coming out of this looking like some serious beancounting, coldhearted bastards.  Sorry guys, that's just how it looks.  And turning around in the heat of public scrutiny to offer Lopez his job back doesn't make it better.

Lopez acts and is lauded
The best bet would have been if someone at JEllis had given Lopez an "Over The Top" gift card for dinner somewhere.  He leapt into action, overdelivering and generally saving the day like a hero.  Open the company up to liability, maybe - but there were other workers on hand to continue protecting the service area.  Add a sound bite to any interviews, something like "Well, we don't actually police that part of the beach.  Mr. X got crazy lucky that Lopez was able to help in a timely fashion.  Violate company policy?  Well, in a word, yes.  It is a violation.  But he helped save a man's life, so I think we can let that slide."

As you can see, the best option would be for Lopez to act - which he did, thus holding up his end of the social contract - and to not be punished for saving someone's life.  That that action stands in violation of an arbitrary company policy is beside the point and should not come into play, not in this instance.  You don't take disciplinary action against people who are helping other people, not when the actions the helpers take aren't in violation of any law.  Go ahead and make it clear that policy exists, policy whose intent is to protect the company from ill intent, but don't let it be what defines your company's culture.

And that brings us to the current conundrum.  JEllis is offering Lopez his job back.  I don't think he should take it.

"And why not?" You might ask.  "It's a tough job market, you know." Indeed it is, but there are some jobs you just shouldn't take.  If the company's kneejerk reaction to delivering far in excess of the company's promised coverage is to fire the individual who actually did the delivery, he should stay the hell away.  They don't deserve him.

Will he be inundated with job offers?  I don't know, but I certainly hope so.  If this young man's instinct is to bust his ass to save mine, regardless of whether it's his job to do so, that's somebody I'd definitely want to keep around, and put on the payroll.  I should think that any company that has any kind of customer service would be extremely fortunate to have Lopez on its side.

Good luck to you, Tomas Lopez.  You've earned it.

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