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More Lessons From the Lunch Lady

We have more news on the tale of Bonnie Kimball, school cafeteria worker temporarily famous for getting fired because she allowed a student to run an $8 lunch tab for 24 hours. Now it seems perhaps Kimball was not entirely forthcoming about why she got fired — which, actually, gives compliance officers even more lessons to ponder.

First, let’s recap the original story. Kimball, a cafeteria worker at Mascoma Regional High School in Canaan, N.H., lost her job when she allowed a student to take several food items from the school’s a la carte menu, even though he didn’t have enough money in his account to pay for them.

District policy in those situations is that the student should only get the meal of the day. Kimball did not do that. Instead, Kimball told the student to have his mother replenish his account, and the student paid back the $8 the next day.

Kimball

Key point: the district outsources its cafeteria work to a business called Cafe Services, and managers from the company saw what Kimball did. The next day they handed her a termination notice that specifically said a manager “witnessed a student coming through the line with multiple food items that you did not charge him for.” That violated the company’s cash handling procedures and the district’s lunch policy, so out of a job Kimball was.

As one can imagine, that story — lunch lady fired for showing kindness to poor hungry student! — attracted lots of media attention, Radical Compliance included. In my first post about Kimball earlier this week, we looked at how that arrangement of contracted labor in an extended enterprise can create difficult tensions between an organization’s ethical priorities and the operational objectives its contractors are paid to fulfill.

Now, it turns out, there is much more to the story.

Investigation Ensues

According to articles in the Manchester Union Leader this week, Kimball had been providing free food to the student for months and lying about it. Kimball also sent the student several Facebook messages (a red flag unto itself) where she told the student to pay the $8 tab the following day only because her managers had witnessed the free food offer.

The CEO of Cafe Services also posted a video rebutting Kimball’s claims. He said Kimball had lied to her managers, saying she had collected the $8 from him, when in fact she had not. (Then came her Facebook messages to the student, telling him to pay up pronto.)

Now that new employees are running the high school cafeteria, the student’s account shows regular payment activity. In other words, the student always had enough money to buy the food he wanted to eat — a point his own mother made to Union Leader reporters. She had no idea about his months of free food, until Kimball got fired and made the headlines.

Kimball’s termination letter. Source: Manchester Union Leader

As recently as last week, more than a month after Kimball was fired, she was still contacting the student via Facebook, asking him to round up other students who might defend her to the press. She also mentioned she was traveling to New York to appear in television and to meet “famous football players.” (Yet another red flag, considering how badly the Jets and the Giants both stunk out the 2018 season.)

The Mascoma school district, meanwhile, had originally threatened to cancel Cafe Services’ $500,000 contract unless it rehired Kimball and gave her back pay. After this week’s news, the district superintendent rescinded that threat, and promised an independent investigation that will be made public.

Food Fights and Lessons Learned

First, as much as we hate to blame the victim, Cafe Services did itself no favors with its four-sentence termination letter to Kimball. That letter, as we can all see in the photo at right, said Kimball had committed only one infraction, of not charging a student for food. It made no mention of lying to managers, or allowing the student free food for months, or anything else.

That is poor documentation of troublesome employee behavior. As any good HR manager can attest, the wisest course of action is to warn an employee of misconduct in writing, then put him or her on a performance plan, then document continued failures, and then fire the worker. All of that should be documented in whatever termination notice the employee then receives.

Why is that so important? Because, as we’ve noted numerous times before, social media magnifies the risks that a company has, including the risks that stem from poor documentation.

Poor documentation creates room to interpret events in multiple ways. Social media creates the opportunity for one specific interpretation to become widely known, even if that interpretation isn’t true.

That’s what happened here. Kimball took a poorly worded termination letter and tried to spin it into her 15 minutes of fame. She was clumsy about it, and ultimately failed, but not before tremendous cost to both Cafe Services and the Mascoma Regional school district. All of that might have been prevented, had Cafe Services documented Kimball’s misbehavior more completely.

Smaller organizations, like Cafe Services, are going to be more vulnerable to that social media magnifying effect, because they typically won’t have dedicated ethics and compliance functions — but they encounter ethics and compliance issues nevertheless, that can now mushroom more quickly than ever before.

Is that fair? No. But it’s also life in the social media age, which isn’t going to change any time soon. So attention to policy and procedure — otherwise known as a corporate compliance capability — will become more important to more organizations. That might be the most important lesson to digest of all.

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