The viral video of the woman being physically attacked by a customer at McDonalds over an anti-straw law drew much applause from folks who admired the way the cashier defended herself. However, she's now suspended and faces being fired for not allowing herself to be beaten up.
Should you be able to defend yourself if attacked at work? Common sense says yes, but at-will laws say no. Most employers have zero tolerance for workplace violence, so they fire all employees involved in a physical altercation. Most companies don't want to bother determining who started a fight. If a coworker attacks, I usually recommend workers drop into a fetal and yell for help so they can't be accused of fighting. The same would doubly apply to a customer attacking. Hitting a customer, even if you are attacked first, is a big taboo.
What circumstances would help this employee? There are some things that might save her:
Publicity: For one, a public outcry. A viral video and threats of a boycott if she's fired could go a long way toward saving her. However, there will probably still be a mark on her record and she'll be out if she has any other infraction.
Discrimination: If she can point to an employee of a different race, age, sex, national origin, or other protected status who defended themselves and wasn't fired, she might have a discrimination case.
Common sense: If McDonalds uses common sense instead of applying a zero-tolerance policy, then the company might decide to give her an award rather than punishing her. But corporate common sense in HR decisions is rare. They'd rather impose a draconian standard and err on the side of firing.
What do I think will happen? Well, she's hired a lawyer, so the threat of a lawsuit for negligent security might cool HR's jets. I think she'll be put back to work with a slap on the wrist and a cloud over her head. If I were her, I'd start looking elsewhere for a job.
You probably won't have a viral video to protect you, so my advice about dropping into a fetal and yelling for help still applies in most situations for victims of workplace violence.
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