Doing the Right Thing
Bill Long 2/19/11
A Quick Judgment
The following narrative describes briefly a situation in which I am fairly certain a person was trying to defraud me. The issue here is not the amount of the possible offense; indeed, it was only $1.39. The issue has to do with whether I made the "right" decision in responding to the situation the way I did. Your thoughts are welcome, except if you just want to say, "Bill, this is so trivial I don't want to hear about it!" I know the amount is small; the issue behind it isn't....
Safeway in Woodland WA
I stayed last night in Woodland, just north of Portland, because I was returning yesterday from Seattle and had a speaking engagement in the Portland area early this morning. After checking into my motel, I went over to the local Safeway to get some food for dinner. I assembled a small basket of items, and the amount (I always do an approximate calculation) for the purchase came out only to about $6.50 in my mind.
The guy in front of me in line was taking an inordinately long time (wanting to renew his card, etc.), and I saw that an adjoining checker had no line. I handed my basket of items to her and she began to ring them up while I went around to get in the line. When I began looking at the items rung up, I was almost sure I saw that she had double-charged me for my Junior Mints ($1.39..ok, I can hear it now--if you want to buy Junior Mints, you are on your own, Bill!), but the screen recording the items was a sort of rolling screen, and so the two $1.39's (I only bought one!) were soon not in sight. She finished ringing things up, and the amount came to about $7.90. I knew then she had double charged me for my Junior Mints.
And, here is the point. I am almost sure she knew she overcharged me. She was a woman about 55 years old, whose every move indicated that she had been doing checking for a long time. So, even though the screen said $7.90, I had to make some decisions right away. Here is what I did.
Speaking to the Checker
I looked straight at her and said, "How much do I owe?"
She responded, "7.90."
I asked, "How many Junior Mints did you ring up for me?"
She said, "One."
I said, "Would you please roll the screen so we look at the items."
She did so. Of course, there was a double-charge for the Junior Mints.
I didn't do or say anything, just wanting it to rest in her court. She hesitated for a moment, not doing anything, and then said, "Oh, sorry."
She quickly gave me my change and said, as the Safeway checkers always do, "Mr. Long, you saved $1.80." In fact, I had saved only about $.40; the rest was her mistake.
I said no more to her and she didn't look at me again.
As I said, I was almost sure that she had tried to overcharge me. She double-charged for the only item she rang up before I was facing her (it took me about 5-10 seconds to go around and get in her line)--so I wouldn't see her. When I exposed the mistake, it was not as if she was very apologetic at all; the "sorry" was almost a curt, dismissive "sorry"--the kind that a child says when the child is not at all sorry for what they have done. It was the kind of "sorry" that actually made me feel worse--as if she was just intoning a word that had little sincerity to it.
My reaction, as you see, was simply to show her her mistake, get the right amount charged, and get out of there. I did nothing else. But I have, obviously, thought about that brief encounter since then, and I wonder if I should have been more "intrusive" or "aggressive" in response. I didn't take any action not because I felt that it would just be a "he said/she said" kind of situation ("c'mon, I just made a mistake..." "No, you knew what you were doing!"), but because somehow I felt that when my eyes bored into her after exposing her "mistake," she knew that I knew what she was doing and, if possible, it would dawn on her that maybe she shouldn't do this in the future.. (Keep dreaming, Bill..")
Another, more aggressive, action, could have been to ask her, point blank, why she rang up two Junior Mints? If I had done so, she would probably have retreated behind the "It's only a mistake" approach. Another action would have been to confront her directly and say, "You deliberately tried to overcharge me, and I think you not only owe me an apology, but you should know that this kind of overcharging reflects poorly on Safeway, and, is not very good for your soul." I am sure that not too many people use "soul" language in Safeway, but I was prepared to do so... A third alternative would have been just to ask for a manager and accuse the checker directly of doing this.
What I don't know is if the checker would actually be able to keep the amount overcharged or, because it has "rung up," that she has to account for it and turn it over to Safeway at the end of the day. If the latter, it seems almost incomprehensible why she would overcharge, other than perhaps because of resentment. Resentment? Yes, I think that resentment is probably one of the most understudied but most prominent feeling that service people, among others, cherish towards those whom they serve. Taking an amount, however small, might be an example of that.
As I drove home today, after my talk (on my book on Proverbs), I went over the scenario again in my mind and felt I did the right thing. I haven't changed my mind on the issue of whether her ringing up the item twice was a mistake. I still think it was deliberate. But I believe that my facial expression of displeasure at her when I basically forced her to own up to her "mistake" was the best thing to do--though I sometimes wonder if it is valuable to try to press things further, just to see how people respond to being exposed...