At Wal-Mart, one of the key personnel mantras is “respect for the individual.” One Wal-Mart worker once told me, “I’m sure Wal-Mart respects the individual — I just never met that individual.” Any manager will tell you that you can judge a company by how it treats its front line workers. Christine Knowels was a loyal Wal-Mart worker who lost her job, and wanted it back. She was hired by Wal-Mart in August of 2000, and worked for roughly seven years — all at the Wal-Mart supercenter #1841 in Chesapeake, Virginia. She was abruptly fired for “gross misconduct” , with a “mandatory no rehire” finding. According to her store manager, “Christine displayed 13 potentially offensive pictures of the management team in the back hallway while on the clock. Christine used/took company resources (digital media/or photo copies off of company property without permission.” When Knowels went to file for unemployment compensation, the Virginia Employment Commission wrote up her case as follows: “Christine was discharged from her position with Wal-Mart for displaying photos of the management team that were considered to be potentially offensive. Christine reported that she had been told by the employee who was taking down the photos that she could have them. Christine used a program on her computer to make funny pictures and brought the altered pictures back to work the following day. Christine said she had done such pictures in the past and co-workers thought it was good for morale. Christine said no one had complained about them in the past and while she was putting up the pictures on the board a co-manager saw them and laughed. When Christine was let go she was asked if she had permission to take the pictures and told [the store manager] that [R] who was removing the pictures had told her it was ok to do with them what she wanted. Christine did not feel the pictures were offensive, and did not mean for them to be taken that way. Christine said she signed off on Wal-Mart’s separation form as she was very upset and needed to get out of the office as she was sick when she heard the news of her discharge. Wal-Mart has said that Christine was discharged for putting up potentially offensive pictures of the management team on company time and for taking company property without permission. Wal-Mart has not provided any copy of the policy the claimant allegedly violated, or given any explanation on how the pictures were thought to be offensive. Regarding claims of Christine taking the pictures without permission, she states that she had permission. The burden of proof lies with the employer to show evidence of misconduct. In this case, Wal-Mart has provided only a statement of why Christine was dischared. However, there is no documentation to show her actions were willful or deliberate, or amounted to the level of misconduct. The charge of misconduct in connection with employment is a matter to be taken very seriously in the instant case. While Christine may have shown poor judgment in what she did… such action cannot, in the opinion of the Deputy, be deemed misconduct. Accordingly, the claimant is Qualified for Benefits.” For her part, Knowels says her coworkers thought the pictures she created were a big hit. “I have done pictures of an associate, who works as ICS Lead and Truck Unload Leader. I have put lime green, bright yellow, hot pink, blue and purple different styled wigs on him in the pictures, they hung in grocery receiving for a few weeks. I also made him into Shrek by turning his skin all green, bulging out his eyes and elongating his ears. This picture hung at the time clock for at least a week. He wanted to take the pictures home for his kids.”
On the day she was fired, Knowels says, “When I was called into the office, Mr. [E] was sitting there. He had already had the green sheet filled out and a copy of the surveillance CD, which was placed on top of his computer. Even after speaking with me about the pictures Mr.[E] just took the green sheet down off his computer top and asked me to sign it. He did not add any information I told him, or change anything to what I told him. He didn’t correct what he wrote either. He had me fired before I got in the office.” Knowels says “the pictures in question were made to boost the moral of the store, make people laugh and have a good time, because several associates have been saying we are not allowed to have any fun anymore and the morale is gone. Let me just say that I have been making these type of pictures… for as long as I have been working for Wal-Mart and no one told me I couldn’t do it or that it was harassment, nor did I think it to be as such. I have had several people ask me to make their pictures or their kids picture, which I have done also. If I felt it would of hurt anyone’s feelings or was even considered harassment I never would of made the pictures. I would of taken the pictures down if anyone told me to, and I would have apologized.” Knowels admits she signed a “green sheet” on separation, stating that she did not have permission to have the photos, but she adds, “the moment [they] said I was fired my stomach turned and I felt I was going to regurgitate any minute and I just scribbled my name and got out of the office to get to the bathroom.” Looking back on her termination, Knowels says that her store manager lied about the photos, because she did have permission to use them. “So many associates have called me and emailed me saying how they thought it was wrong to fire me because they know I was just trying to raise the morale and have a good time.” Knowels says her loss is not just emotional, but economic as well. “To lose the Health Insurance on my husband and myself, my Accidental Death Insurance, Dental Insurance, Part of my 401k & Profit sharing (as I had 3 weeks to go before being fully invested) Life Insurance and Stock options, over something I have been doing for years and always got great response is just horrible.” Christine L. Knowels, loyal seven-year employee at Wal-Mart, had to turn in her badge and her discount card. But she also left something much more important on the table in that back office in supercenter #1841 in Chesapeake, Virginia: her pride and self-respect. And she’s prepared to fight the world’s largest retailer to get them back.