Office Depot Store #20 Refused to print our catalog.

We don't keep large quantities of our hardcopy catalogs around since the majority of our customers browse our listings online, but we still have to keep some on hand for the occasional wholesale account; when we run out, it has long been a simple matter to stop at a nearby copy center and have more made. So, on the morning of Wednesday, January 15, 2003, having exhausted our prior batch, we dropped off a fresh set of our catalog page originals to be duplicated at Office Depot #20, at 5330 W. 34th St here in Houston.

Around three o'clock that afternoon, we got a phone call. They refused to copy our catalog. First, the objection was raised that the material was copyrighted. Yup, sure enough, it us. This failed to appease them; it seems that somebody at the store had also decided that our catalog contained "inappropriate" things, and they flatly refused to copy it on that basis, and they declined to disclose what was "inappropriate" about the content on the phone.

We weren't particularly amused. We asked for, and after a lengthy delay received, the name and phone number of their District Manager, but we were unable to contact him. His phone rang endlessly; there wasn't even an answering machine on the line. So we called Office Depot's national Customer Service line (1-800-GO-DEPOT). Their telephone representative initially said that he found the store's refusal to print our catalog pages rather odd, and proceeded to try to get the store manager on the line with him. About 10 minutes of waiting on hold went by, at which point the home office person (who was, by the way, quite courteous throughout) came back on the line having apparently spoken to the store manager. He stated that the policy decision on what is and is not appropriate to print is left up to the individual stores, and that the store manager was not going to be overruled on this.

Needless to say, we asked to speak to someone higher up the food chain, and were transferred to another person in what we believe may have been their administrative offices...who affirmed the other person's statements and then offered to lodge a complaint with the company management about the situation. We indicated that at the very least, a complaint was indeed what we had in mind. The representative assured us that the complaint would be forwarded to the corporate management, and we were left with the impression that some form of response could be expected.

At that point, it was obvious that we would have to get the copying done somewhere else. When we picked up the scorned pages on the following day, we inquired again as to precisely what was deemed "inappropriate", so that we would know in advance what Office Depot's policy-based objection was. Surprisingly, these are the two things that the store manager cited as being "inappropriate"; "Die, Barney, Die!" and "Happy, Happy - Kill, Kill". Can you say "unclear on the extent of what is considered humor"? Moreover, the store manager stated that the reason for the refusal to print the copies was that he couldn't "expose" his employees to this objectionable material, and that it "wasn't the sort of thing that we should be involved with." (Noting that at no time was any request made for Office Depot to endorse, approve, or lend their imprimatur to the material in question, how does copying it make them "involved"?)

Now, to us, all of that sounded a bit odd to be a real reflection of actual policy for an outfit of this size. Generally, such corporate giants have very firm and fairly explicit guidelines defining what their store employees should and should not do, and the refusal to print the material in question didn't seem likely to be explicitly covered by formal company policy. It appeared that this had to be a rogue act, but how did it manage to stand in the face of what should have been corporate-level insistence on serving the customer? As nearly anyone who has worked in retail can attest, being tolerant, honest and up-front - and most of all, being consistent in the way customers are handled - is almost never a matter that is simply left to individual employee discretion, management or otherwise. And if policy was actually involved, then it must have changed not long before the refusal took place, as we'd had exactly the same materials duplicated at that store numerous times over several years. (In fact, a couple of years prior, one of their copy center employees had asked for a copy of the catalog after duplicating it for us.) Since the unanticipated refusal in this instance appeared to be a rather dramatic change from historic policy without any external indications as to what was going on, we got curious.

Obviously, the people in that store weren't going to be much help, so we went closer to the top of the Office Depot heap...and we soon uncovered a big clue. Office Depot's corporate Ethics Guide, posted on their corporate website, contained this statement: 'It is Office Depot's policy to provide its employees with a working environment free from the influence of all forms of harassment and discrimination and to respect the privacy and dignity of all employees.' (Subsequent editions of the document are different in several important respects; while similar statements still appear, they are now phrased in a manner that makes it clear that Office Depot is talking about interpersonal interaction between its employees.)

Although such assertions sound like a good idea, they can cause problems for a company when they're overly broad. One way that this sort of statement can become a real tailbiter is in the way that it sets the stage so that an easily offended (or other-agenda-equipped) employee can cite it in refusing to do a job, claiming that the task might expose them to something that they view as constituting "harassment". It's equally possible that a manager with a personal agenda, inspired by such a statement, could interpret it pro-actively, becoming overly "protective" in an ostensible effort to create a working atmosphere so sanitized that it bears no relationship to the real world. We won't try to deny that a good many of our more in-your-face bumper stickers are pretty much designed to offend certain people. Part of the whole idea of Freedom of Speech is that when you need to say something that isn't popular or isn't nice, the people who are going to be offended should only have recourse if what you're saying is slanderous...and much as they might like to think otherwise, nothing in our collection could reasonably be put in that category.

Now, as it happens, on the same page of the Office Depot corporate Ethics Guide as the statement cited above, there was another one that seemed perhaps relevant as well: 'Office Depot will not permit any employee to harass (sexually or otherwise) another employee or to discriminate against another employee, customer or vendor in any way, including without limitation, by means of ethnic, racial, sexual or religious remarks, animosity, unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favors. Office Depot has "Zero" tolerance for harassment or discrimination.' (Similar statements are in later versions.) Well, that cuts both ways, and if they're really serious about this one from the standpoint of not discriminating against their customers, then perhaps they need to take a good look at who they're hiring for their copy centers - and store management.

Let's face it, no matter what personal credo or philosophy any given individual Office Depot employee may have, at some point it is pretty much inevitable that a customer is going to come along who needs to have copies made of materials that explicitly offend the employee in some basic way, even though the content does not violate any law. If an individual who can't accept and cope with the fact that there are viewpoints and tastes at variance with their own is placed in a position where their tastes are allowed to override their responsibility to handle or work with a customer's materials, then the employer has just acted to legitimize, approve of and accept the employee's own discriminatory act as being the act of the corporation. Given that in the same Office Depot Ethics Guide discussed above, there was an entire page that explicitly stated that the employee must disclose any potential conflicts of interest that could impact their ability to do their jobs, it would seem entirely appropriate for Office Depot to have asked copy center employees if there was any material which, although legal to duplicate, they would object to handling in the course of their job...and if they indicate that they had such a conflict of interest, then they simply shouldn't have been assigned to that task. This, as a matter of fact, is one of the things that the Ethics Guide suggests as the remedy when such a conflict exists. Perhaps they just hadn't realized this when our catalog was deemed unacceptable. Or perhaps, as seems more likely to us, Office Depot's corporate folks hadn't bargained on getting stuck with a store manager who was going to do what was done in this instance.

July 2007 Update: We're still waiting for Office Depot to directly respond to the complaint we lodged four and a half years ago.

Apparently no one at Office Depot, either at the time of the incident or subsequently, felt that it was appropriate or necessary to directly address our complaint; there has been no response, nor even confirmation that the complaint was recorded and understood. Early on, we decided not to return to their stores until some satisfactory explanation, and preferably some attempt at accommodation, was received. Had they simply located a different Office Depot elsewhere in the vicinity, at which there would not have been a problem getting the copies made, the whole thing could have been solved amicably...and we'd have simply avoided just the nearby store for our office supply and copying needs instead of avoiding the entire store chain. The fact that no such communication has been forthcoming is the reason that this page remains posted on our website, where it will remain until we have reason to remove it.

One final amusing development: We got the copies made at one of Office Depot's competitors nearby, and their staff found the contents funny. We gave them one of our business cards so that they could visit this website on their own time. Hi guys! Keep up the good work, you'll be seeing more of us!

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