The Case of the Fired Waitress
Ruth Hatton, a waitress for a Red Lobster restaurant in Pleasant Hills, Pennsylvania, was fired from her job because she was accused of stealing a guest-comment card that had been deposited in the customer comment box by a disgruntled couple. The couple, who happened to be black, had been served by Hatton and was unhappy with the treatment they felt they got from her. At the time of her firing, Hatton, age 53 years, had been a 19-year-old veteran employee. She said, “It felt like a knife going through me.”
The couple had gone to the Red Lobster restaurant for dinner. According to Hatton, the woman had requested a well-done piece of prime rib. After she was served, she complained that the meat was fatty and undercooked. Hatton then said she politely suggested to the woman that prime rib always has fat on it. Hatton later explained, based on her experience with customers in the working-class area in which the restaurant was located, that the customer might have gotten prime rib confused with spare rib.
Upset Customer Leaves
Upon receiving the complaint, Hatton explained that she returned the meat to the kitchen to be cooked further. When the customer continued to be displeased, Hatton offered the couple a free dessert. The customer continued to be unhappy, doused the prime rib with steak sauce, and then pushed it away from her plate. The customer then filled out a restaurant comment card, deposited it in the customer comment box, paid her bill, and left with her husband.
Inadvertently Thrown Out
Hatton explained that she was very curious as to what the woman had written on the comment card, so she went to the hostess and asked for the key to the comment box. She said she then read the card and put it in her pocket with the intention of showing it to her supervisor, Diane Canant, later. Hatton said that Canant, the restaurant’s general manager, had commented earlier that the prime rib was overcooked, not undercooked. Apparently, the restaurant had had a problem that day with the cooking equipment and was serving meat that had been cooked the previous day and so it was being reheated before being served. Later, Hatton said that she had forgotten about the comment card and had inadvertently thrown it out. It also came out that it is against Red Lobster’s policy to serve reheated meat, and the chain no longer serves prime rib.
Hatton Is Fired
Canant said that she fired Hatton after the angry customer complained to her and to her supervisor. Somehow, the customer had learned later that Hatton had removed the comment card from the box. Canant recalled, “The customer felt violated because her card was taken from the box and she felt that her complaint about the food had been ignored.” Referring to the company’s policy manual, Canant said Hatton was fired because she violated the restaurant’s rule forbidding the removal of company property.
Not a Big Deal
Another person to comment on the incident was the hostess, Dawn Brown, then a 17-year-old student, who had been employed by the restaurant for the summer. Dawn stated, “I didn’t think it was a big deal to give her the key (to the comment box). A lot of people would come and get the key from me.”
The Peer Review Process
Hatton felt she had been unjustly fired for this incident. Rather than filing suit against the restaurant, however, she decided to take advantage of the store’s peer review process. The parent company of Red Lobster, Darden Restaurants, four years earlier had adopted a peer review program as an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanism. Many companies across the country have adopted the peer review method as an alternative to lengthy lawsuits and as an avenue of easing workplace tensions.
Success of Peer Review
Executives at Red Lobster observed that the peer review program had been “tremendously successful.” It helped to keep valuable employees from unfair dismissals, and it had reduced the company’s legal bills for employee disputes by $1 million annually. Close to 100 cases had been heard through the peer review process, with only ten resulting in lawsuits. Executives at the company also said that the process had reduced racial tensions. In some cases, the peer review panels have reversed decisions made by managers who had overreacted to complaints from minority customers and employees.
Hatton’s Peer Review Panel
The peer review panel chosen to handle Ruth Hatton’s case was a small group of Red Lobster employees from the surrounding area. The panel included a general manager, an assistant manager, a hostess, a server, and a bartender, all of whom had volunteered to serve on the panel. The peer review panel members had undergone special peer review training and were being paid their regular wages and travel expenses. The peer review panel was convened about three weeks after Hatton’s firing. According to Red Lobster policy, the panel was empowered to hear testimony and to even overturn management decisions and award damages.
Testimony and a Decision
The panel met in a conference room at a hotel near Pittsburgh and proceeded to hear testimony from Ruth Hatton, store manager Diane Canant, and hostess Dawn Brown. The three testified as to what they believed had happened in the incident.
Through careful deliberations, the panelists tried to balance the customer’s hurt feelings with what Hatton had done and why, and with the fact that a company policy may have been violated. Initially, the panel was split along job category lines, with the hourly workers supporting Hatton and the managers supporting store management. After an hour and a half of deliberations, however, everyone was finally moving in the same direction and the panel finally came to a unanimous opinion as to what should be done.
1.What are the ethical issues in this case from an employee’s point of view? From management’s point of view? From a customer’s point of view?
2.Who are the stakeholders, and what are their stakes?
5.If you had been Hatton, would you be willing to turn your case over to a peer review panel like this and then be willing to live with the results?
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