We were just shopping at Target, buying everything from dog food to throw pillows to laundry detergent. The lines were long, I was feeling crappy, and the bill was $142.78. The stuff was all loaded into the trunk of our car, a long walk from the entrance, when my wife noticed a tiny 25 watt light bulb—price: $2. 27— that had slipped into a crevice in the cart. “Ooooh, I bet they didn’t charge us for that,” she said.
Immediately, I was hit with a furious rationalization assault trying to kill my ethics alarms like Santa Anna’s men climbing over the Alamo’s walls:
- “Who cares? They won’t care. Let’s just go!”
- “It wouldn’t have been missed if the line didn’t make us late! Target deserves to lose the bulb!”
- “We can tell them about it next time!”
- “Nobody would go back and return this!”
- “The walk and the inconvenience are more trouble than the lousy bulb is worth!”
- “You think it’s stealing? Fine, leave it in the cart. Then we don’t get it either.”
- “This wasn’t my fault!”
We went back and gave the unpaid for bulb to the customer service clerk. She raised an eyebrow and said, “Really?” Not “Wow, you people are so ethical. I’m going to tell my children about you” really, but “Wow, you people are idiots. Nobody does this. It’s a lousy $2.27! I’m going to tell my friends about this, and they will laugh long and hard” really.
This is anti-ethics bias micro-aggression, and in its own, incremental, crummy way, it makes society more unethical and untrusting because it treats ethical conduct as aberrational. If I had been feeling better and my usual annoying, feisty self, I may well have said,
“Oh, is a customer being honest ridiculous to you? So from that I assume that you approve of minor theft, is that accurate? Does that mean you are lifting low priced items from the store, and allowing your friends and family to do so? Let me talk with your manager, please. I want to ask him if you reflect Target policy. I’d like it clarified myself. What priced items are considered so disposable that theft of them is expected to be shrugged off as trivial? Under five bucks? Ten? Twenty? Why stop at twenty? Fifty? A hundred?”
“Before I explain your reaction to your supervisor and ask if that accurately reflects the store’s attitude toward not paying for inexpensive merchandise, let me convey this for future reference. The proper response to a customer who returns an unchecked item rather than just leaving with it is ‘Thank-you!’ and a smile. Not “Really?” and a smirk. Got that?”
Dirty Harry would have added, “Well, do ya…punk?”