Sunday, September 03, 2017

Is it OK to 'borrow' something from a store if you plan to return it?

Earlier this summer, A.K. was helping his family prepare for an annual cookout. A.K. is the adult child of parents who love to entertain and the annual cookout has become what he considers a "big production."

"We spend weeks preparing for it," he writes. Menus and activities are planned. Duties are doled out to each family member. "It's like a well-oiled machine," A.K. writes.

The evening before the event, A.K.'s mother asked him to check to make sure that all of the games were in good shape. He did, but noticed that the football, basketball and soccer ball each needed some air. When he checked for the pump, he noticed that the pin on the pump that was used to pump air into each of these balls was broken.

After he told his mother he was heading to the local discount store to buy a new pump pin, she asked him if he could see if the store sold plastic replacement control knobs for the slow cooker she planned to use to make pulled pork for the cookout. Somehow the plastic knob had fallen off and been misplaced. While she could use pliers to turn the metal shaft over which the knob slipped, it'd be much easier to have the knob.

When he got to the store, A.K. found that it did not sell replacement knobs and that it was out of stock for the pump pin. He saw, however, that pump pins came with foot pumps that the store sold and it would have been easy to slip one out without anyone noticing. He also found that the store had what seemed to be the same model of slow cookers his mother used and that the plastic knob on the display sample easily slipped off the metal shaft.

The package of two pump pins cost less than a dollar when in stock, so if A.K. were to "borrow" one from the foot pump, he figured the store would only be out 50 cents at most. He also doubted they would be selling the display model of the slow cooker, so "what harm would be caused if I simply slipped off the control knob and borrowed that too?" he writes.

"I just need them for a day," he adds. "I could go back the next day, slip them back in place, and no one's the wiser." He wants to know if he would have done something terribly wrong by making his family's cookout go a bit more smoothly by "borrowing" each of these items.

Justifying actions we know to be wrong doesn't make them right. The right thing would be for A.K. to ask the store manager if they had either item in stock. If not, he could ask the manager if there was any way he could buy each even though they were part of a separate item. If not, the right thing is to simply return home empty handed and start calling around to see if any of the cookout attendees might have a pin he could borrow and to get out the pliers for the slow cooker.

It may have been petty theft to take each item and A.K. might have thought he was doing his family a favor by swiping each, but it would be stealing nonetheless. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 



Anonymous said...

This doesn't seem too bad compared to a woman I used to date who would buy shoes to wear to a party and return them the next day. Sorry ladies, but I don't think she was the only one who would do that.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me they call that shoplifting!