My prospects for finding a summer job were dim until my friend John helped get me a job with his retail employer, Dollar General.  It was my first job, and it took me some time to learn the skills.  John supported me despite my numerous mistakes during the first few weeks.

Dollar General faced a continuing challenge with theft.  We would stock products only to find some shelves empty the following day.  Upper management was pressuring us to stop the pilfering but refused to supply resources for extra staff, surveillance cameras and the like.  We tried several strategies without success, including the assignment of employees to different areas of the store during the day.  Finally, one day we caught a thief in the act of leaving the store with a duffel bag full of merchandise.  By this time I had been promoted to assistant manager (on John’s recommendation), and it was my job to inspect the bag.  I found inside it a document, prepared by John, that detailed when certain areas of the store would be unsupervised.

Only I knew of John’s involvement.  I was almost in denial, because I had known him for many years and thought I was an accurate judge of his character.  Initially, I felt obligated to protect him.  However, after some thought, I reported him to the store manager, who undertook the necessary course of action.

Contributed by Anonymous.

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

3 responses »

  1. Christopher says:

    I think you did the right thing.

  2. John Hooker says:

    I have seen a number of dilemmas like this. Should a co-worker or boss be reported for unethical or illegal activity? The answer depends on the specifics of the case.

    The utilitarian test is usually the hardest to apply in such cases, because it is difficult to foresee all the consequences. You know that the thefts will stop no matter what you do, because the thief has been caught, and reporting John will cause him to be fired and most likely prosecuted as well. On the other hand, the thief may implicate John anyway, and it could come to light that you suppressed the evidence. The thief could mention the document in the bag while implicating John, and you would lose your job.

    I don’t think we have to struggle with the utilitarian test, however, because it is clearly implicit (if not explicit) in your employment contract that you will report employee malfeasance to the company. Violating an employment contract is normally ungeneralizable and therefore unethical. This means you should report John even if it results in less utility.

    You are uncomfortable because of an apparent conflict with virtue ethics. Reporting John appears to violate the virtue of friendship. Protecting a friend who does wrong sometimes become generalizable if honoring friendship is part of the rationale for it. Yet this is a complicated and ancient dilemma that is hard to analyze in a few words.

    In your case, it’s unclear that friendship calls for protection in the first place. To have a friend, one must be a friend. John is not much of a friend if he would expect you to jeopardize your job to shield him from the just consequences of his actions. If he had compelling moral reasons for his crimes, such as feeding his family or civil disobedience against an oppressive state, things would be different. But there is no indication of this in the case.

    Destroying or concealing this piece of evidence could be illegal in itself. But we need not resolve this, because it is unethical in any event. You must turn over the incriminating evidence to management, however unpleasant this is.

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