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Since when is using legitimate coupons to make purchases from your employer a fireable offense? When the employee handbook says it is. That’s what several employees of OfficeMax found out the hard way.

A federal judge has upheld the office supply store’s right to fire three employees from a store in the U.S. Virgin Islands for using OfficeMax coupons to make personal purchases. Five others who were dismissed won the right to have their terminations reviewed. But all had their claims of breach of contract, defamation, emotional distress and other complaints dismissed.

The incidents in question took place back in 2012. OfficeMax said an internal investigation found “unusual redemption activity” of a particular coupon at the Virgin Islands store. That coupon was earmarked for use only in specific stores elsewhere in the U.S., yet more than a thousand of the nearly 3,000 coupons redeemed were processed at that one store.

While OfficeMax did not specify how the coupon found its way to the Virgin Islands, or even what the coupon was for, its investigation found that the coupon “had been in the store for weeks and was being used by customers and associates alike.” The coupon apparently wasn’t spectacular – the most than any employee saved was $35. The least was a mere $1.80.

And yet eight employees were fired for using the coupon at all.

The reason was what OfficeMax called the “no combination rule”. According to the store’s employee handbook, “employees may receive either a five or a ten percent in-store discount.” But “the Handbook prohibits combining the employee discount with any other offer or discount.”

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That includes coupons. So the store’s loss prevention manager fired eight employees who “violated the no combination rule.”

And then the eight employees got together and sued, objecting to OfficeMax’s alleged “extreme and outrageous conduct.”

But the judge didn’t agree, dismissing most of their claims and upholding the store’s right to fire its management-level employees. The five store associates argued that their managers approved their use of the coupons, and that they were “merely being used as scapegoats” because OfficeMax was upset the coupon was being used at all. The judge allowed them to proceed with that claim, so their lawsuit lives on.

Among the biggest losers in this case, appeared to be OfficeMax’s own customers, at least for a time. The employees’ dismissal was big news in their hometown, where an article in the St. Thomas Source newspaper described how a “skeleton crew is struggling to keep the St. Thomas OfficeMax outlet running smoothly in the wake of the sudden departure of a large number of its staff.” Customers, the paper went on, “have reported unusually long lines at the checkout… Staff apologized for the delays and explained that they were short-staffed because representatives from corporate had visited recently and fired numerous employees.”

That led to fears that the store would close. But corporate assured the paper that it was seeking to fill the open positions. And it apparently did, because the store remains open today.

Still, the very idea that there might be long lines and delays at an office supply store is completely foreign to some shoppers, since OfficeMax, Office Depot and Staples are struggling amid intense competition from big-box and online retailers – so much so, that some are floating the idea that the stores would be better off combined into one entity.

If so, they might want to rethink that “no combination rule.” If allowing employees to save a few bucks means a few more sales, it sure beats having those employees get their deals at Walmart instead.

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