Nothing good has ever come from a “walk of shame.” But a new lawsuit against big-box retailer Target takes the shame one step further, and the results are tragic.
A mother in California is suing Target, claiming that its “walk of shame” disciplinary policy led to her son’s suicide.
22-year old Graham Gentles was a cashier at the retailer’s Pasadena store; he also had Asperger’s, an autism spectrum disorder. One morning, when he showed up for work, police and store security met Gentles at the door and handcuffed him; they then led him through the store—in full view of other employees and customers—to a back room to be questioned about an off-work incident with another employee, months prior.
After questioning, Gentles walked back through the store with the police, still handcuffed; the police put him in the back of their squad car and took him to the police station, where they later released Gentles without charging him with anything. Three days later, Graham Gentles jumped off the roof of a local hotel.
It’s easy to cast Target as the “good guys” of the big-box retail universe, especially when Wal-Mart acts like such a comically obvious villain. And Target does have some positive corporate initiatives. But that doesn’t excuse what took place at this Pasadena store, and it should lead to Target adopting stronger, top-down policies for treating employees with respect.
I know this is possible because this story is personal. My brother-in-law also has Asperger’s; he’s 30 years old, but because of his demeanor and height, I sometimes find myself accidentally calling him my “little brother.” We’re both huge Harry Potter fans and naturally musical people. He kicks my ass every time we go bowling together.
For the past decade, my brother-in-law has worked at the same movie theater. While the experience has been an overall positive one, it has sometimes been a roller-coaster for him—and by extension, for his family. During his first few years of employment (I admittedly did not know him or my husband at the time), my brother-in-law often faced harassment and verbal abuse on the job; when he tried to react to this treatment, he was unfairly disciplined. My husband has told me on more than one occasion that he suspected his brother never faced serious disciplinary action or got fired only because the theater was terrified of a potential lawsuit.
Thankfully, this story has a happy ending. Last month, my brother-in-law celebrated his 10-year anniversary working for the movie theater, and he recently earned an extended schedule. He has colleagues and manager who have taken the time to get to know him, treat him with respect and help him be successful at his job by focusing on his strengths. But what’s going to happen when the time comes for him to move on to a new job? How would he fare working a similarly demanding job at a big-box retailer like Target? My husband was blunt on the matter:
“I am scared to death of him ending up somewhere that doesn’t have a culture that not only promotes values of equality and respect, but protects those who might be vulnerable. It really doesn’t matter to me whether this only happened in one store. It was one too many, and they will not be getting my money.”
How can consumers reconcile this horrifying story out of one Target location with the company’s larger corporate presence?
Allison Hassett Wohl, Executive Director of the Association of People Supporting Employment First, had this to say:
“It is a claim in one store; this does not mean that Target has a systemic cultural practice of treating its employees this way. I’m not a betting woman, but if I was, I would put money on the fact that the more general claim about Target’s culture is false.”
Target has a fairly proactive corporate policy for hiring people with disabilities. According to the company’s 2009 Corporate Responsibility Report, Target has partnerships with “agencies, school programs and government incentive programs that help us hire qualified people with disabilities.” The report also states that Target does not tolerate “workplace discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, age, national origin, physical ability, sexual orientation or other characteristics protected by law;” however, this policy doesn’t expressly include intellectual disabilities like Asperger’s or Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Target’s proactive hiring for people with disabilities isn’t where equality ends. It is their responsibility not only to give people with disabilities the chance to get a job, but to also give them the chance to excel on the job. A key part of that opportunity to excel is being treated as any other employee.
In this specific case, it clearly means that the “walk of shame” is a draconian disciplinary policy that shouldn’t apply to any employee. But it also means that when Target hires someone with a physical or intellectual disability, it’s the company’s responsibility to invest in their well-being through a more inclusive, accepting corporate culture.
I’m an optimistic consumer, so I look forward to seeing Target take these steps as they attempt to regain my customer loyalty.
Stephanie Levy is a writer, editor, and web producer living in the D.C. area. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, she has covered everything from education policy to dumpster-diving for beer (seriously). If you’re a fan of feminism, online sarcasm, and/or the St. Louis Cardinals, check out Stephanie’s website, and follow her on Twitter: @stephanie_levy.