Undercharge Undercurrent – Do I need to report an undercharge if it will indict the cashier?

Q. At a recent trip to the supermarket the checker accidentally failed to me charge for some items. I want to return the money, but I’m afraid that if I bring back the receipt the boss will take unwarranted punitive action against the checker.

A. Your concern is well placed. We have often cited here the five ABC’s of derogatory speech; one of the five conditions which must be present in order to justify revealing someone’s shortcomings is “equity.” In other words, even if someone’s actions justify disclosing his or her wrongdoing, we may still not speak up if this will cause unjustified damage to the wrongdoer. It’s very well to protect the victim (in this case, the store) but it’s not equitable to do so at the expense of injustice to the subject.

Of course this requires a judgment as to what kind of response is “unjustified”. Your letter mentions that checkers who undercharge are made to pay the undercharge and are also suspended from work. Whether this response is justified or excessive depends in part on circumstances: If almost all checkers are honest and careful but on occasion make errors then this is too harsh; if many checkers are motivated to cheat the store or to work carelessly, then this policy may be the only protection the store has.

If in your judgment the response is excessive in your case, then you should return the money without showing the receipt or giving any information that will finger the checker. You can vaguely tell the store management that you “recently” found you were undercharged. Another possibility is to just reverse the situation; check something through without taking it home (just return it to the shelf). Jewish law teaches that someone who has stolen money but is embarrassed to admit it may return the money surreptitiously (1); the same expedient can be used if returning the money openly will unfairly damage the checker’s interests and reputation.

What if you have a private interest in keeping the information secret? Perhaps you acknowledge that the store’s response is necessary but you are personally embarrassed to have the checker know that you turned her in. Your interest in maintaining good relations with the employee is a valid ethical consideration. If discipline against the checker is not absolutely necessary for protecting the store’s interests, you may take steps to protect her even if the store’s response is justified. (Of course the store itself has an ethical obligation to prevent resentment by keeping the checker from finding out who informed, but some managers may not know this.) In this case also you can return the money secretly or with a vague explanation.

(1) Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 355:1.