News & Views‌

Is honesty the best policy?

October 31, 2019 - 8:00am
David Surdam
Self check out machine

I recently went shopping with a friend. She went to a variety store and put several items in her basket.

At the checkout, she started conversing with the cashier. The cashier rang up most of the items but hadn’t rung up a phone card (retail value $39.99). I was wondering whether the cashier forgot to do so, because she was distracted by the conversation. I hasten to add that my friend was not purposely trying to distract the cashier.

What would be my ethical duty, if the cashier neglected to ring up the phone card? Should I have informed her: “Pardon me, but I think you forgot to ring up the phone card.”

This seems pretty straightforward. I should speak up. After all, if the cashier had rung up the phone card twice, I would have pointed out her error. Simple reciprocity demands that if we demand a correction for errors that go against us, we should demand a correction for errors that benefit us.

Suppose my friend did not notice that the cashier had failed to charge her for the phone card. I should not assume that her ethical standards coincide with mine. Perhaps my friend would feel gratified that I informed the cashier. Your friend might be miffed that I informed the cashier. “I could have used the $39.99,” she might retort. Your parents would probably tell you, “You don’t need that kind of friend.”

Consider, instead, that the cashier had been rude to us, and we decided to retaliate by not reporting the error. At times in our interactions with people, our response may be affected by the other person’s attitude or actions toward us. “The cashier was a real jerk; I’ll stiff her.” Of course, one flaw with this line of thinking is that the cashier may not ever realize you’ve retaliated (thereby reducing the satisfaction you might derive). Her cash register will balance, and the inventory miscount may be attributed to shoplifters (although most stores require cashiers to electronically set the value on the card).

You may have noticed that some stores are replacing almost all of the cashiers with scanners. Stores are hoping to reduce costs. Given the nature of retail, reducing cashiers may result in lower retail prices (or at least reduce the need to raise prices). Some customers enjoy scanning their items...when the machine work correctly. All too often, the scanners have some sort of glitch, and the customer must wait for a service person to remedy the problem. Other customers dislike scanning their items and find themselves tempted to skip scanning some items. Some customers may not like bagging their merchandise. They may rationalize this as some sort of payback for perceived inconvenience or reduction in service. Even if you operate on the dubious morality of an "eye for eye," the store did not initiate any injury by installing the scanner. Consumers may be holding an attitude of entitlement with regard to previous standards of service, but this just does not justify theft.

Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative would likely assert that it is never ethical to stiff the cashier or the store. Ethical practice is not predicated upon what the other party does. Even if the cashier acted rudely or inconvenienced you, Kant would insist that we honor our duty to be honest.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the University of Northern Iowa.


Headshot of David Surdam

David Surdam

Professor of Economics

University of Northern Iowa


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Submitted by Brandon DeMaris on
I think that you should give the woman a chance and if she doesn't notice then you can stop her and let her know it wasn't scanned. if she decides to still walk away then she has made her own bad decision. if you really think it would be needed you could also tell the cashier that she had forgotten to scan the item. Even if the person is your friend that doesn't give just cause to let that slide. the friend should know that is considered stealing. This is something that happens often and people tend to look the other way. This was a good read. Gives you lots to think about how you would react and what would it take for you to look the other way.

Submitted by Spencer Ferguson on
I think if you ask anyone they will always say yes honesty is the best policy. But talk is cheap right? People say one thing and do the other all the time. Even I am guilty of saying on thing and not doing it. I have a roommate that went to buy a internet router at Target when we first moved to Cedar Falls. The router was a pretty nice one and was like $160 or something close to that. Well, when we checked out the cashier was fairly new and she couldn't figure out how to scan it and take it off the computer so my friend (who had previously worked at Target) was trying to help her but she wouldn't listen to him and was being very rude about him trying to help. She thought she figured it out and when my friend looked at the total he saw that it was only $5 instead of being $165. He didn't say anything, paid the $5 and walked out of the store with a router and whatever else he got. As much as I want to say I would have said something to the lady I really do not think I would have. That is just an example of someone saying one thing and doing another.

Submitted by Adam Kirk on
Working in retail, the phone card has no value until scanned and paid for, which is why they are not even counted toward inventory. This goes for any gift card a retailer carries (imagine if the Visa gift cards weren't like this). Anyway, working in retail people are pretty honest either way and for anyone. It's almost a double accountability system. I work at a major retailer and we are supposed to check inside any store merchandise that can carry things, yet some people put items in their personal carrying means. Customers have pointed out to me, or I to them for this very reason. Although, having been curious while in other countries, America does not have the most honest policy existing. I have not worked internationally in retail to clarify. In Hungary, their public transit system does not require people to enter on the front of the bus and there is no token machine as they have a ticket punch system once you get on. This might save on waiting for people to get their fare ready. That's what I observed with public transportation. Americans are also less honest in retail stores and restaurants as opposed to most countries where sales tax or tariffs are calculated in the price that is on the tag with sales tax or tariffs showing on the receipt. We only do this with gas prices because it's a liquid commodity. Working in retail and at a place that kids buy from, it's confusing to the kid why the price at the register is higher than what was on the shelf. The parent usually chips in for the sales tax added in after its rung up, but I don't think the price on the shelf is completely honest beyond the inaccuracies of the base price and ad signs versus the point of sale (POS) price. It's faster to change the price in the POS than the shelf tag and the POS system can update prices automatically but not tie it to shelf sign prints. With anything new, there is a learning curve even for the self-chek machines, much like completely shifting classes online. I use them because I can ring myself up pretty quickly as well as knowing how to bag.

Submitted by Marcus Norton on
I believe honesty is always the best policy when it comes to a situation such as the one outlined in the article, and initially I was wondering how that could even be a question. Upon reading the entire article I do understand where they are coming from. Whose responsibility is it to be honest, you or your friend? Then add the fact that the store employee was unpleasant, and it may be easier to just act like you didn’t notice the employee’s mistake. In the end, I still believe honesty is the best policy. When you think about it you are not affecting the employee at all.

Submitted by Colin Schmitz on
I think for people that hold honesty in high esteem like you mentioned this would be an easy situation, they would just tell the cashier that they missed something. But, someone not as immersed in the "honesty is the best policy" mindset may have started asking themselves things like "How much money have I spent here in the past?" "How much is that phone card worth?", "Look at all this other stuff I bought", etc. and would have kept convincing themselves that not letting the cashier know was okay. The point that was made about if it was double scanned you would have said something really stuck with me and made me think through the situation more. I think in situations like these it is often best to just be honest, that way you don't have to remember that time you didn't pay for something you should have and you regret it. With most honesty situation you just have to ask yourself if you can live with yourself or not, knowing that you weren't honest.

Submitted by Abbey Burris on
No matter the circumstances of the situation, honesty is the best policy. Now, of course, this is easier said than done. If we were to put ourselves in the cashiers position, we would want to make sure we were fulfilling our job duties. That includes making sure we are scanning every item. As humans, we all make mistakes. If we had missed scanning an item, such as a card in this instance, we would appreciate a customer's honesty. And we can only assume that if instead the cashier double scanned the card the customer would eventually realize and would make their way back into the store to get the issue corrected. This goes back to treat people how you want to be treated. It is always a good idea to put yourself in others shoes to get an idea of their side of the situation.

Submitted by Chris White on
"Kant would insist that we honor our duty to be honest" It may be our duty and responsibility to honor that, but our system is set up to where people who are dishonest can thrive. In multiple facets of life, the good guy does not always win. I wish I could undoubtedly say that I have been honest throughout my life, but I do not want to be purposely obtuse. This Is definitely a hard topic to call black and white because there are so much grey area in it.

Submitted by Ashley Goebel on
Most likely everyone will say that honesty is the best policy, but they still might find it hard to always follow that. I would never condone someone I am with or myself to intentionally steal, whether it be my fault, a friend, or the cashiers. I think it would be understandable and not considered stealing if both you and the cashier didn't notice, though. If I had a friend along, I would hope they would speak up about it if it was seen. A good thing to think of if you have the urge to not scan an item is that you should treat others the way you want to be treated. If you had a business, would you want them to steal from you? I have myself accidentally not paid for an item at Target after using the self check out, but I can truly say that I went back into the store to pay for it after realizing in my car.

Submitted by Stephanie Graser on
I think that doing the ethical thing would be to speak up but I honestly don't know what I would do if I was with a friend and they did not notice. I would hope that I would be friends with people that simply only because they were distracted not because they were trying to pull a fast one. I do not know if I would have the courage to speak up on behalf of my friend thought if I am being honest.

Submitted by Logan Willis on
I think honesty is quite the straight subject as we all are expecting of the same things. We want to be treated how we treat others with that being the main way most of us were taught to be probably growing up. I remember being at work one day and someone being so upset about something and uncooperative with everyone she had later been sent home early as she was seen in need of some time alone after finding out a close one to her had passed away. You never know what someone could be going through in a day they may not have the same attitude you have. Never judge someone with what you don't know they're going through is an important thing to understand in life. Now not everyone thinks the same if your desperate for money during the time you may not say anything and that could bother you later in the day or your fine with it. These things are just ethical thoughts varying between people so you'll never know how you will act there until in the situation. That's another important concept is saying you know how you'll handle but its a whole different concept when your actually put in the situation itself. That's when your views will truly shine.