Sunday, June 25, 2006


For some, how far to go in correcting a retail mistake that results in more cash in your pocket than you deserve depends on how much money is involved. Others believe that such mistakes should be corrected regardless of monetary value. But to what lengths is one obliged to go?

Let's say that you've waited in line for several minutes to buy your morning coffee on the way to work. You've paid and are a couple of blocks away before you realize that the clerk gave you change for $20 rather than for the $10 you gave her.

Do you turn around and go back to the coffee shop to return the extra $10? Do you wait until the next time you're in the coffee shop to return the money? Or do you merely pocket the extra change and chalk it up to good luck?

What would you do?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "Comments" below or send your thoughts to
. Please include your name, your hometown and the name of the newspaper in which you read this column. Readers'comments may appear in an upcoming column.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Spiro Press, 2003), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.


Anonymous said...

You go back and make the correction immediately: before you forget and before the cashier balances his or her cash bag and comes up short.

Anonymous said...

It is always better to return what is not rightfully yours. There is no discussion here!

Anonymous said...

I would call the coffee shop when I arrived at work and tell them of the mistake so the cash register balances at the end of the day. I would then return the money on my next coffee shop visit.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the example of having been given change for $20 rather than $10 for a coffee purchase, I would definitely return and correct the mistake. Besides being the right thing to do under any circumstance, it's also highly likely that the cashier will, if the mistake is left uncorrected, have to pay that money back out of their own pocket.
Lori Flores, Riverside, CA
Article in The Orange County Register

Anonymous said...

It depends on whether the shop is a family owned business, the service was friendly, personable and efficient, and the staff seemed to care whether I came back again, I would absolutely return the money as soon as possible.

If the shop was some big, impersonal chain with mediocre product and service, and a never ending series of indifferent people behind the counter performing their job as though it didn't matter whether I ever came back again, I probably would not.

San Clemente, California
Orange County Register

Anonymous said...

In response to your column in the "Charlotte Observer, re: extra
$10, I would have called the coffee shop and told them I received the extra
$10 and would return it the next time I visited their shop. This way, if a
clerk came up short, at least they would know why they were short and that
it would be returned. In this day and age with the price of gas and
everyone is so busy, I feel it is unrealistic to expect a person to return
and right the mistake immediately.

For example, whenever we order fast food and receive the wrong
order, I call the eatery. I always receive this comment "We are so sorry,
can you bring it back and we'll make it right?" I tell the manager, "No, I
am not coming back this evening; I'm upset and there is no way I'm using my
gas to come back so you can right your mistake. Please take my name and the
next time I visit your eatery, I'll let you take care of it." This has
happened three times in the last year and when I go back (at my
convenience), the mistake has been rectified. However, it's very irritating
that you can't order something special and receive it the way you order
it...I would suggest that if you made this subject into a column, you would
get a tremendous response.

I would like to share with you an experience I just had with
"Costco." We went and bought two bathing suits (two different sizes) for my
granddaughter to try on. Her mother gave me back the one that was too big
for her so I could return it. I found my receipt and realized that I was
only charged for one. (I realized this about a week after the purchase).

Ordinarily, I would have just returned the bathing suit and received
credit on my credit card. However, I had to decide what to do in that only
one bathing suit was charged to me. The following thoughts ran through my
mind..if I try to return the bathing suit, will they think I stole one of
them even though I was not trying to return the extra one for
credit?..should I just donate the extra bathing suit to a needy
organization..or do I just keep the extra bathing suit for next year because
no-one knows (to which comment my 40 year old son said "But God knows")..
Well, after my son's comment, there were no further conversations needed
with either anyone else or just with myself. The next day we went back to
Costco. I asked to see a manager/supervisor. I explained the situation and
he gladly took the item and said "Thank you." Bottom line is that I knew
what I needed to do in the beginning, but it took my son's comment to give
me the nudge to keep me on the right path. I left Costco with a clear
conscience and never thought about it again, until I read your column.

Helen Standley
Charlotte, NC

Anonymous said...

One thing I have found missing in all the discussion so far is the fate of the misfortunate employee.

If you wait past closing time on the day in question:

1. How long will it take to check and recheck and recheck the cash register before deciding there was no math error - there really is money missing?

2. Does the manager insist on balancing to the dollar, dime or penny?

3. How long will it take to decide which employee either made a mistake or stole the money?

4. Will the manager dock the employee's pay for the amount at a time when the meager income is desperately needed?

5. Will the manager fire the employee?

6. Will the manager keep the employee and make him/her miserable by forever looking over his/her shoulder?

Reason demands that whichever of the above applies, much angst can be avoided by a telephone call the instant the receiver discovers the mistake. Just telling the manager how much was involved in the error and the circumstances (very busy, interruptions, etc.) can allow all to sleep that night knowing you will come by the next day with the missing money.

Pure vanity should also demand that you appear the hero to the manager and the poor employee.

I'll get off my soapbox now.

Carole Longman
Delaware Ohio
(formerly of New York and Los Angeles)

Anonymous said...

The easy answer is to ask yourself if the situation was reversed, what if you were short changed the same amount as you were over paid? What would you do then, go back or let it go? Should be the same answer.

Mark Jones
Huntington Beach, CA

Orange County Register

Anonymous said...

My name is Sarah and I am 14 years old.
I was at a clothing store and I had just finished shopping with my mom and my younger sister. I was
calculating the price of all of my items (I was shopping with graduation giftcards), and I figured it
was just higher than $40.00, then the woman at the
register rudely threw the receipt to me and it read
only $30 and some change. Surprised at what I thought was a mathematical error (which I rarely make) I shrugged it off, we paid, and left.
Once we got out of the store I looked at the receipt more closely and realized that I hadn't miscalculated, the cashier hadn't charged us for one pair of shorts.
I was faced with an ethical dilemma! To take my free shorts and run freely on the beach pretending that nothing happened, or to be the goody two shoes I always am and give that grumpy woman the 10 dollars I owed her.
Surprisingly my conscience didn't have to beat me up for me to choose to tell my "math-lacking" mom that we just stole a pair of shorts. We marched back into the store and did our good deed of the day by paying for the shorts and simultaneously making my mom proud.
I made the right decision, and I think everyone should too when faced with the choice. To take, or not to take? I think you should always choose the latter.
Sarah, 14, O.C. Register

Stacey said...

If I didn't need to be anywhere immediately and was only a couple blocks away from the store, I would turn around and return the money.

However, if I was on my way to work or an appointment that was necessary to be on time to (which one isn't, really?), I would try my best to call and relay the mistake. Assuming I'm at least a semi-regular customer, I would return the difference the next time I visited the store.

This is coming from someone who works for a very well-known coffee shop. I know what would happen if I was short $10 - $20. And the time and effort that is spent figuring out where that money went.

Tustin, CA
O.C. Register

wilma50 said...

To June from San Clemente: SHAME on you!
To dansergirl247 (Sarah): GOOD for you!