Monday, September 06, 2010


At the beginning of July, a reader quit the company where she’d been working for several years. A couple of weeks after she received her final paycheck as a direct deposit into her bank account, she noticed that another paycheck had been deposited. Then two weeks later, still another paycheck deposit had been made to her account.

While she’s only received two “extra” paychecks so far, she writes, “I haven’t really spent them,” although she immediately admits, “OK, just a little bit, but it’s recoverable.”

Now, she says, she finds herself in an ethical quandary.

“I know, one should always be ethical,” she writes. “But when you're faced with debt and suddenly there's free money, it's a threat to one's morals sometimes. I'm a very ethical person 99.5 percent of the time. But when it comes to money, the temptation can be a very tricky thing to deal with.”

My reader writes that part of her wants to call up her former employer and tell them about the mistake. “But then I’d lose that money” she writes, acknowledging that she knows the money is not really hers. “Another part of me says, ‘Wait and see. Let them figure it out and stop it eventually.’”

Some friends have advised her to hold onto the money and do nothing. Others have encouraged her to call the company and return the money as soon as possible.

“I just can’t quite decide,” she writes. “Even if I return the money, what about the taxes being withheld from the checks? I don’t have that money. The government does. How would the company recoup that?”

As tempting as it might be for her to do otherwise, the right thing for my reader to do is to notify her former employer and return the money. Legal issues aside, she acknowledges the money is not hers and that the deposits being made into her account are a mistake.

That she spent any of the money, however small, while knowing it wasn’t really hers was wrong.

Her concern about “losing the money” if she notified her former bosses is misplaced. She can’t lose what isn’t really hers, no matter how tempting the sudden arrival of “free” money might be.

Worrying about how the taxes withheld from her erroneous paychecks is a distraction that doesn’t excuse her from setting the record straight. She certainly can’t be expected to repay the company money it withheld for taxes…but she shouldn’t use that issue as an excuse to delay putting the money back in its right hands.

Whether or not she’s facing debt and regardless of her fondness for someone placing extra cash into her account, no good can come from keeping what she knows doesn’t belong to her. If the ethics of such a decision don’t cause her to do the right thing, then perhaps the concern about how she is going to come up with the money to repay her former company after it discovers its mistake should.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), 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

c.2010 Jeffrey L. Seglin


Sheila Siler said...

Excellent point. I am sorry that people even wonder what is right . . .

kgagne said...

I am glad they do! Better that than to just keep the money without qualm or debate.