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Possible wrongful termination in child abuse reporting case

A former employee of nationwide retail chain DSW says that she was wrongfully terminated for violating a company policy after she reported an instance of possible child abuse by one of their customers. The woman called child protective services and provided the name and address of a customer that was obtained during the return process after a series of events in the store that caused her serious concern for a child's safety.

The woman says that while working as an assistant manager at one of the discount shoe retailer's locations, she witnesses a toddler wandering around the store unsupervised and visibly dirty. When she found the 22-month-old girl painting a shelf with store nail polish she also noticed that the girl smelled and guessed that she needed a diaper change. She brought this issue up with the adult who was with the child at the store and was met with confusion and inaction. After two more hours of shopping, while processing a return, she heard the woman threaten to hit the child when they returned home. This experience led the assistant manager to knowingly violate store policy and retain the adult's information, using it to make a report to local child protective services.

She was fired shortly thereafter for violating the policy of keeping customer information confidential, which she says was a wrongful termination under state laws protecting employees who report this type of conduct.

This case raises the interesting issue of what employees can or should do when a company policy conflicts with their own conscience or with a state public policy goal. This comes up frequently in whistleblower cases, where concerned employees report potential wrongdoing to law enforcement officials even though company policy often instructs internal reporting. In this case, though, there was no misconduct to report on the part the employer, only concern for the child that led the woman to use the confidential information in violation of the company's policy.

What do you think - was it acceptable for the company to fire the woman for violating the policy? Or is it better to encourage reporting of this kind even when it violates company policies?

Source: Courthouse News Service, "DSW may be liable for child abuse scare firing," Rose Bouboushian, April 2, 2013.

More information about various wrongful termination claims can be found on our Texas employment law site.

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