Monday, July 15, 2013

Rising Corporate Feudalism - Policy Versus Law

The story of Carla Cheney has been making the rounds for the last week or so.  The short synopsis is that she was fired from WalMart in Ontario for calling the police about an animal left locked in a closed vehicle.  

Superficially, this is not a particularly big story - she apparently violated company policy regarding how she interacts with customers and got fired for it.  Companies are free to create policy that regulates the actions of their employees - this is neither new nor surprising.  What is interesting is the intersection between the company policy and civil law.

Here we have a situation where public education programs are very clear - if you see an animal in distress, call the police or animal services.  Period.  In Ontario summers, leaving an animal locked in a car is leaving the animal in distress - heat and humidity in a closed car is an evil combination.  No pet should ever be subjected to those conditions.  Even leaving windows partially open is highly debatable.

WalMart's policy guidelines stipulate that the employee should bring the issue to the attention of a manager and let the manager deal with it.  Superficially, this doesn't sound unreasonable.  Until you realize that a busy manager is going to prioritize an issue like that based on all the other topics they are dealing with at the same time.  Further, we don't know if the rest of corporate policy enables the manager to act in accordance with local law, or if the manager is explicitly or implicitly discouraged from engaging law enforcement in such situations.

What is interesting here is that the corporation has a policy which essentially appears to overlap with existing civil law.  Were I, as a private citizen, to make the same phone call that Ms. Cheney did, WalMart would be unable to do anything about it.  However, in the context of the situation, WalMart saw fit to terminate her employment for "violating company policy".  This creates a situation where in some very fundamental respects, the corporation has placed its own internal "laws" (policies) above those of the state.  Further, they have also exacted a surprisingly harsh penalty for violating those policies - certainly one that far exceeds the penalties which would be applied to the animal's owner, for example.

This creates precisely the environment which I have been critical of in other posts on this blog - namely one of corporate feudalism.  As long as you abide by the rules of the corporation, you can get away with just about anything you like - at the price of sacrificing personal ethics as well as potentially ignoring local laws.

The same issue had started to emerge in the 1990s in the form of "whistleblower" issues.  People who found themselves observing wrongdoing within the walls of a corporation had no avenue to safely call out those actions without being terminated.  This provoked an attempt to solve the problem in the form of "whistleblower" legislation in a number of jurisdictions, but ultimately has not been adequately resolved.  Employees within a corporation are still held to a code of silence when their corporation acts maliciously.  This is little different to the oath of fealty that a feudal lord would demand of his followers - it acts in many respects as a law above the law which limits the ability of the individual to challenge that which they see as wrong.  Corporate policy, especially in multi-national entities has become a law above the law - used as an instrument to limit individuals' ability to do the right thing for fear of serious economic consequences.

If calling the police because you see an animal in distress is an offence that gets you fired, one can imagine that were Ms. Cheney to be witness to more serious fraud within the company that she could be subject to severe sanction within the company should she take the story outside of the company.

While I can respect the fact that companies, like individuals, have a right to protect themselves from unjust and inappropriate accusations.  However, I do have a huge problem with corporations creating policies which essentially place them above local laws.  When those systems become such that the individuals within a corporation are threatened with consequences should they step outside of them, even when they have witnessed the violation of laws.

When such threats exist, implicitly or explicitly, we have a situation where one agency is acting in a manner that is explicitly hostile to the rule of law as currently understood and is in fact creating a second set of rules which not only binds the individuals involved, but subverts the purpose of civil and criminal law in the first place.  That binding is one more step in the creation of a feudalism which is hostile to the individual and their freedom.

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