Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I ran into a Catholic doctor that I’ve known for more than 20 years. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to call him “Ray.” After we talked for a while, the topic of how young adults aren’t prepared for the real world came up.
Ray told me about a recent experience that he had at a local department store. While he was shopping at the store, he picked up a package of six identical items that were bundled together. When he arrived at the checkout lane, the young woman behind the counter scanned one of the six items. The amount that appeared on the cash register screen was for a single item, rather than all six of the items.
When Ray saw the single-item price on the screen, he calmly told the woman that he didn’t think that the price was correct. He explained to her that the price that was displayed should have been six times what was shown, because there were six items in the package. The woman scanned one of the items again and the same amount appeared on the screen. She then told Ray that the amount that appeared on the screen was the correct amount.
Ray was irritated with the woman and said, “Okay, if that’s the price, I’m going to go get some more packages.” He then walked over to where the items were displayed and grabbed three more packages off the shelf. The woman rang up each of the three additional packages for the single-item price.
When Ray finished telling me about his experience with the woman, I said, “You really do know better than that. Just because the woman didn’t know what she was doing, didn’t give you the right to purchase the packages at the reduced price.” He disagreed with me and said, “No, you’re wrong. Since she insisted that the price was correct, I had the right to buy as many packages as I wanted at that price.” I disagreed with him and said, “When you purchased those items, you knew that she didn’t have the authority to reduce the price of the package to the single-item price. There’s a word for what you did. It’s called theft.”
At that moment, our discussion was interrupted by someone who was standing next to Ray. We never had the opportunity to finish our conversation.
The discussion that I had with Ray was not contentious or disrespectful. He wasn’t offended by what I said and I wasn’t offended by his refusal to agree with me. If we had not been interrupted, I would have continued the conversation and given him a lesson in human nature and dishonesty.
Most people don’t know it, but there’s an entire industry in the United States that is built around educating store owners on how to keep the theft of their money and products at a minimum. It is a commonly held belief that the biggest theft problem that store owners have is from customers. That’s generally not the case. Store owners lose more money from employee and supplier theft than from customer theft.
The theft-control industry provides training and technology to store owners to prevent all forms of theft. One example of how to keep suppliers from stealing is by staggering the delivery times for each supplier. For example, a store owner should not allow a person who is delivering beer to unload and deliver cases of beer while another person is delivering bread. An easy way to steel is for a delivery person to say that he delivered and placed 12 cases of beer on store shelves, when he may have only delivered 10 cases. The two cases that he didn’t deliver could be taken home or sold to one of his buddies.
One of the ways to prevent this type of behavior is to require delivery people to show up at different times so the store manager or owner can carefully monitor the delivery of the products. To assist the manager or owner in monitoring the behavior of the delivery people, video cameras can be placed inside and outside the store.
This is only one example of several ways that delivery drivers can steal from stores. There are also numerous ways in which store employees can also steal from the stores that they work for.
Years ago, the theft-control industry hired a company to do a comprehensive study concerning theft by customers, employees, and suppliers. One of the findings of the study was that 5% of the population is hardwired to always lie and steal, regardless of the need of the person who is lying and stealing. This segment of the population lies and steals on a regular basis, for no reason, and without any shame or guilt.
Another 5% of the population is hardwired to never lie or steal. Individuals who fall within this category insist on always being honest, regardless of the circumstances. They can be in desperate need and they still won’t lie or steal. They are the type of people who, after arriving home and discovering that a cashier overpaid them by 5 cents, will make a special trip back to the store to return the 5-cent overpayment.
The remaining 90% of the population will lie or steal as long as they can justify their dishonesty by the circumstances of a situation. Some of the people in this category are more honest than others. While they may go through a lot of effort to remain honest, there’s always at least one situation in which they will lie or steal. Others are less resistant and can talk themselves into lying or stealing after the occurrence of only a few minor events.
The 90% of the population who are willing to lie or steal depending on the circumstances, practice “situational ethics.” The situation itself determines whether they are willing to do something that is dishonest. Saint Peter practiced situational ethics when he denied that he knew Jesus.
If my conversation with the doctor had not been interrupted, I would have told him about the results of the theft-control study and I would have eventually been able to convince him that he had engaged in situational ethics to justify his behavior of depriving the store owner of the money that should have been paid for the other five items in each of the packages that he purchased.
There are only two people I can think of that I know who fall within the category of the 5% who would never lie or steal. On the other hand, I can think of several people I’ve met over the past 30 years who are in the other 5% category — the people who routinely lie and steal for no apparent reason. The rest of the people that I know fall within the 90% category who practice situational ethics.
The only way a store owner can stop customers, employees, and delivery people from stealing is to make it known to them that they are being watched and that there’s a strong likelihood that they will be caught and prosecuted.
If I had been able to finish my conversation with Ray, I would have told him that he needed to repair the damage that was caused by his sin of theft. I would have told him that in order to do so, he should donate a significant amount of money to a charity. The donation would have to be large enough to make him hesitate on the amount. It wouldn’t be enough to just donate a small multiple of the true cost of the packages that he purchased. It would have to hurt for him to part with the money. I would have also told him that he needed to admit to stealing the next time he went to confession.
The two virtues that are most effective in countering our tendency to be dishonest are humility and courage. I work on practicing both of those virtues every single day.