Friday, January 15, 2010

Tonight’s Homework

Lets say you worked at this place for a long time and you really liked what you did and you were very good at it.

Then one day, the economy tanks and your employer lets you go – without much in the way of warning.

Your former employer owes you some retirement money/severance/residual benefit pay.

They send you a check, but due to some kind of accounting error there’s an extra $800.  It is very unlikely that they’ll ever catch this.  Times are tough, you could use the money – and again, it’s unlikely that anybody will ever notice. 


Question: Do you return the money, or do you keep it.


Show your work (i.e. explain your answer) – pretend that somebody who reads this blog is in this exact situation and is highly interested in your answer.


  1. Well, it depends upon your personal ethical standards.

    I'd probably contact my old boss and ask him what he/she recommends--you've contacted someone at your old job, and will do as they suggest recommend.

    However, be aware that I don't pirate software or music or movies, because I believe it is stealing. Just so you know where I'm coming from.

  2. It depends on how I feel about the former employer. If I left under a "fuck you all!" kind of note, I'd keep it (because then I could rationalize doing so). Otherwise, the guilt would gnaw at my mind.

    I wouldn't keep the money from my ex-work, for example, even though "fuck you all!" definitely applies to certain portions of the place. But not to the woman who would actually have been responsible for the accounting error, and not to my ex-boss whose accounts it would probably have come out of. (Said boss, it should be noted, actually offered to give me his personal savings. That's how good of a relationship we had. And said HR woman is still going out of her way to find me job leads to pursue.)

  3. While it's unlikely that they may catch it, there's always a chance that they might, in which case the recipient might be civilly or even criminally liable for the extra. (Mileage obviously varies from state to state, but there's certainly a chance that the recipient could be charged with whatever the local version of "Obtaining Property By False Pretenses" is; and even if the recipient might ultimately prevail, going to court to defend against what might, depending on your state's laws, be a felony is pretty much the complete exact opposite of fun).

    Beyond that, you have the dictates of conscience. Mileage, again, varies, but just because the hypothetical company that let the hypothetical person go are douchebags and just because the recipient needs the money more than the company does (arguably), this doesn't mean that the money isn't unearned wealth. I can't say that there's a hard-and-fast rule of honor or faith that might govern, but I can personally say I'd find accepting the extra $800 dishonorable.

    (After my car accident, I received an unexpected check for around a grand from my lender; because I was concerned about the legalities and the ethics, I didn't cash it until a series of calls confirmed that the money was in fact a pro-rated refund of the extended warranty I'd purchased on the car; so, this is a situation where I can actually say I literally put my money where my mouth was, so to speak. But this raises another issue--it's certainly possible that the $800 in the "hypothetical" isn't, in fact, an error. If it is, my moral and legal advice is to return it, but it's possible the recipient may find, after calling about it, that it represents some unexpected severance or rebate. Perhaps there was some portion of paycheck, for example, that was subtracted for retirement or insurance benefits.)

    Anyway, there's my take on it: call the company to find out what happened, and if the money is in fact a mistake, return it. The recipient will sleep better for having done the right thing and for avoiding a criminal or civil risk, however small.

    Hope that helps.

  4. Return.

    Despite it being "unlikely" that they ever catch you, chances are you'll worry that they /might/ catch you someday for a long time to come.

    You'll start dreading every official-looking envelope in the mail because you fear that it'll contain a message that they found the discrepancy and would you please repay those $800 and we'll talk no more of it... Except you've spent the money and don't have it.

    I don't know how tight the hypothetical blog-reader's financial situation currently is, but I'd ask him whether it's tight enough that the above seems worth it.


  5. I would put the $800 in a separate "escrow" account (earning interest of course). I would then send a notarized letter, certified receipt, notifying my former employer of the error.

    If the employer asked for the money back, I would give it back. After, of course, a reasonable "payment processing period" of 30 days.

    Why is 30 days reasonable? Because my GDSOB health insurance provider tells me so. Whenever I catch them in a reimbursement error--which is like every month--they tell me the correction will be processed in 30 days.

    And if you don't hear back from the former employer in, say, one year, then in my book they've waived their rights to the money.

    finest = the kind of advice I am providing right now. Else, the act of financial estimation.

  6. I'd offer to pay it back, in writing, then wait for an answer. 30 days sounds about right to me too.

    unsph - the noise a man makes when he sits on a cat

  7. I would return it (or rather, check to make sure it wasn't a mistake). I tend to be pretty straight-forward on these things, since to me, what matters is what *I* know I've done.

  8. Assuming I figured out the amount was over, I'd contact them. Because I am not interested in either getting money I'm not owed OR dealing with any later ex post facto drama.

    Dr. Phil

    wausink -- (1) when you order everything including the kitchen sink in Wausau WI; (2) when your ice fishing shack is still sitting out on the lake during the January thaw...

  9. Assuming that you are sure it is a mistake, you must return it. if there is a question about it, keep it, don't spending it, and find the truth.

  10. I'm with Nick. Cover you ass, make a good faith effort to return it if it's a mistake.

    If the company doesn't respond, then keep it with a clear conscience.

  11. Return it, it's not my money. Since the employer only let me go because they are shutting down shop I would contact them to ask exactly how to return it. I like the idea of keeping it in escrow.

    If they didn't contact me back by the time I had another job (or after a year or so), I would try to give the money to charity.

  12. Return it.

    (But I always return it. I inform the server when there's an error in the bill in my favor, or the supermarket checker when something didn't scan. Come to think of it, I recently went on a date with a guy who DIDN'T inform the restaurant that they left the drinks off our tab, and I "marked him down" for that. But the date was a disaster anyway.)

    Where was I? Point is: not your money.

    Other point is: When they discover the mistake, someone else may get screwed over it.

    Third point is: In this bizarre-o economy we have here, you never know if you might end up in a situation where the opportunity may arise to work for this former employer again -- maybe things will turn around for them and they can hire someone back (and maybe you'll be in a situation where you could really use that job). The person they're most likely to hire back is the one whose very last contact with them was, "Hey, I think you overpaid me $800." You leave an impression of honesty, decency, and "no hard feelings." I can't tell you how many times JUST THIS WEEK I've seen people in a situation where they've got to be thinking, "Man, I wish I hadn't burnt that bridge." And, even if you never work for them again, your honesty will reflect well on you when someone calls them for a reference.

  13. I've been out of the army for a few years, but an old sergeant once said to me, "Integrity is what you do when no one's watching." That's still good enough for me, I'd return it.

    From a practical standpoint, I'm confident I can calculate my regular paycheck and see if it's correct. If I was laid off and recieved a check that was part paycheck, part severance and part my retirement being cashed out, I'm not at all confident I could tell if it was the correct amount. So I'd have to ask.

    Also from a practical standpoint, I'd want to return it as soon as possible, before living expenses whittled at the rest of the severance... else it would be really easy to be tempted to justify keeping the money, and then worrying for years after like comment #4 said.


  14. The company in question says the payment was four times the quarterly bill I sent them, which itself was a copy of the bill from their agent. They think it is what I am due.

    I will hold the money for a year as the bill had two parts, only one of which I think they owe me. This is on their advice.

    The corporation in question is large and friendly to employees and retirees. My pension was mysteriously raised by the difference between SS at 62 and 66, for which I do thank them.

    I will remain anonymous, but do thank Jim for lending his forum.

    pants - something my first wife never wore.

  15. When I was in the Army at the start of my third year I received proficiency pay, a more than 1/3 increase. But pro-pay was only due people not on their first enlistment. I was a 3 year enlistee, not a draftee who extended a year to choose their school.

    I took the pay check/stub to my first, who said he would get orders cut to deduct the overpayment and stop the pro-pay, this was a common occurrence, just cash the check, but expect a light one next month.

    In about a week I get a copy of orders doing just that. However the next month there is not only no deduction, but the pro-pay is still there.

    I go back to my first. His advice was open a savings account and bank the money. If the Army hasn't found it within a year of discharge, it was mine, if they found it they would ask for it.

    They never found it.

    mouse - cat toy

  16. Return it immediatly, I don't belive in doing a job for the money or excepting money you haavn't earned any other sourse of action is low and borderline tthievery, if they do not take the money back donate it to charity or to someone who is worse off than you but to keep it is deploorable

    moadings- a new form of french art the consists of toothpicks elmers glue and sparkles, (popular amongst the rich and easily amused)

  17. To tfernando -- exactly.

    Honestly, you'd think some people didn't have to live with themselves. I think they must work for large banks.

    Dr. Phil

    cotor -- a circular rotor (blades connected on the outside), or perhaps the ducted fans used by the transports in Avatar.

  18. I vote for:
    1) Put the money in a separate account.
    2) Send a letter saying "I think you messed up."
    3) If they don't respond within a year, spend it.
    4) Of course, any interest is always yours.

    This keeps you out of legal and moral trouble. Also, as others have said, you never know when you'll run into folks who were at the old company and want / need / would like a favor from them. Being an honest guy and being seen as one are both good things.

  19. So what I'm hearing here is "Go buy a big screen HDTV and damn the consequences..."

  20. I'd make the phone call, start the conversation on a, "I may be wrong here, but this check looks a little over..." But that's me.

    herni - affectionate name for a hernia.

  21. Actually, now that I think about it ...

    I would make a certified copy of the check showing the overpayment. Then I would file a suit on behalf of all shareholders, alleging gross negligence and malfeasance by management. In the discovery phase, I would find out how many other payment mistakes had been made, and seek to have the suit certified as a class action.

    Then I would settle the suit, pay off my lawyers, and keep the original $800.

    But that's just me ...

    chessee -- Ever play chess with pieces made from Wisconsin cheddar? When you take a piece, you get to eat it. Makes pawn promotion kind of difficult, though ....

  22. I'm with pretty much everyone here, except that nobody else mentions jars or apple trees in their response. Underachievers.
    *Put the money somewhere safe, and separate from the rest of your money, like an interested-yielding account. (Or a shoebox in the back of your closet, under the stack of pants that haven't fit you in 4 years. Or a jar buried in your backyard. 3 long steps north of the apple tree. A different jar than the one you keep your regular savings in, of course)
    *Contact either your former manager or your former HR rep. (if they're still employed there, if not, contact whoever you can reach in management/HR - preferably someone you knew during your tenure with the company, so that you have a better likelihood of being able to cash-in on any feelings of goodwill that your honesty and integrity may engender)
    *Inform them of your belief that there has been a 'bank error in your favor' and request that the matter be brought to the attention of the appropriate parties for review.
    *Once the matter has been reviewed:
    If you are informed that the money was issued in error, first curse, then curse yourself for your honestly, and then return it at your earliest convenience. I would hesitate to delay the return by more than 10 business days, but I wouldn't grab a shovel and head for the apple tree right after I got the phone call either.
    If you're told that no error was made, and that the amount you received is rightfully yours (regardless of whether or not you agree) jump up and down for awhile, preferably while uttering incomprehensible squealing noises. *If it's possible to do so while still maintaining food/ transportation/pinball/housing expenses, leave the money in its safe place until April 16th of the following year. If the company accountants don't get their math-loving feathers ruffled over it at tax time, it probably wasn't really an error in the first place. Plus, at that point they've filed it as income paid, and you've filed it as income earned, and nobody says "Oops!" to the IRS if there's a conceivable was for them to avoid it.
    *Dig up your $800 jar sometime in the last half of April, (a good time of year for buried-jar retrieval, since you can kill two birds with one stone by planting flowers in the now-empty hole) and buy yourself that big screen HDTV that Jim was talking about by which time it will undoubtedly be much cheaper than it was at the time you received the money. This means you have bonus-bonus money, which is never really a bad thing, is it?

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  23. If it's mine, I want it. If it's not mine, I don't want it.

    Check to see if they think it's yours. If not, give it back. If they think it is, keep it, and sleep well in good conscience.

  24. As I said, they think it is mine, but they will get back to me.

    bedis as in don't be what you want to be, bedis.

  25. Glad you checked, Anonymous. Hope it really does turn out to be yours! :)

  26. I generally agree with Nick, although I wouldn't make them wait 30 days if they came back and said "Whoops, it's ours." I believe in being true to my own internal compass, no matter what others have done to me. Once you step onto that slippery slope of "They have been cheating me for years, they OWE it to me.", where does it stop? Just like Gollum and the One Ring, once you start justifying immoral actions to yourself you can find that you turn into someone your younger self would never recognize. I doubt very many people in the world are truly evil - as in, "I 100% recognize that what I am doing is wrong, and I really don't give a shit.", although I am sure they do exist. I would guess most people have an internal dialog going that justifies their actions to themselves. "They owe it to me." "I would never have done it if they hadn't driven me to it." "I know it's wrong, but it will be for the best in the long run." "Everybody does it." "They will thank me for it later when they see that I'm right." "Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb." I figure that if I stay the course that I will always be able to look myself in the eye and know that I did right. Just me and myself, because at the end of things that's what you are responsible for.


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