Aug 29, 2009

Ethical Dilemma - Seeking Advice

One of the downsides of being a person who works many part-time jobs is that sometimes I neglect to pay regular attention to my employers and their abilities to pay me on time. As a result several times last year my wife reconciled our accounts and pointed out that one institutional employer neglected to pay me as scheduled.

This was especially annoying because of the various excuses provided to me by the people who addressed my queries: "This is a special account that must be hand-posted" and "We just started a new software system" and "The recent changes caused our systems to get backed up" and "They pulled our accounts payable personnel and put them on a special project."

At one point last year they were three payments behind, and they finished the fiscal year by screwing me out of at least one - and possibly two - checks. When I complained, they put the burden of proof on me, insisting that if I could not produce all the pay stubs, they would not be able to tell if I was paid or not, since "the system has a lot of problems and we have no way to check on our end."

Of course, since I did not actually receive the checks, I could not produce the requisite pay stubs, right? I ended up just writing off the amount and vowing to watch this particular employer very closely.

Thus I was quite surprised when said institution (which shall remain nameless) accidentally cut me a check this month that I technically did not earn. So I am now faced with a dilemma: should I keep and cash this check, an amount in the hundreds of dollars exactly equal to the amount I was shorted last year (assuming they only screwed me out of one check), or should I take the high moral ground and return the check despite the earlier failure to pay all monies to which I was entitled?

My inclination is toward the latter, and to send it to the highest-ranking officer as proof of the general failures of the accounting systems. Yet I am still irritated at the poor service and treatment I experienced last year in dealing with the less-than-helpful office staff, and I could always use the extra cash to buy a stone sink or something.

Thanks in advance for your comments, and I look forward to reading your responses.


Debbie G said...

I know what I would do! I'd return it! Even though they "owe" you several paychecks at least. JMHO.

Molly said...

I'm about as ethical as you can get if for no other reason than I believe in something like karma and I just *know if I keep whatever, I'm going to get smacked in response. Still in this case, doesn't it seem likely the system finally caught up with your missing money and paid you? Seems to me trying to "correct" this mistake is going to involve jumping through even more hoops, all towards an end of returning money that's yours anyhow.

Hooda Thunkit (Dave Zawodny) said...


You stated that the check is nearly exactly what they had previously "screwed" you out of.

I see no ethical dilemma here, cash it!

But be prepared to fight to keep it when they later claim that the check was a misteak ;-)

And, sooner or later, they will.

Just ask them to PROVE it, as they had previously done to you...


Ya gotta LOVE it ;-)

Mr. Puggle said...

hmmmm. tough one. i would say, you wanted them to do the right thing right? therefore, you lead by example and do the right thing. i bet God will bless you ten fold by doing the right thing. good luck. let us know the outcome. it was fun to read the other comments.

Anonymous said...

Mike, I had a similar situation with a particular institution of higher learning in Wayne County some years back and had the same questions you raised. I actually consulted an attorney and a CPA, who both told me that I would bear no legal or fiscal liability in cashing the check. Nonetheless, I felt I might be compromising some personal ethical principle and decided to not cash it. (I did, however, not return the check...and never heard again from the institution.)

I must also add in your defense (for cashing the check) that the amount owned to me was less than the check I received. Perhaps in your case, the correct accounting finally caught up with you and the funds are indeed your earnings.

Bbcmjeep43 said...

I would donate the sum to a worthy charity and take the tax deduction at the end of the year.

historymike said...

Debbie G:

You are a saint, and thanks for being of strong moral character.

historymike said...


You could be correct about karma.

historymike said...

Hooda Thunkit:

You may be onto something with the "prove it" approach.

historymike said...

Mr. Puggle:

I like your "lead by example" approach!

historymike said...


Yes, the fact that the amount is identical to my previous shortage makes this especially tempting.

historymike said...

Chris M.:

You have offered a very workable solution that balances morality with practicality. Thanks for thinking outside the proverbial box.

microdot said...

Mike, my profound advice:
When ever I have thought that I could "screw the system" especially when it involved accounting practices, no matter how much I could rationalize that they "owed it to me", when I took matters into my own hands, I got smacked.

What I would do? Inform them of their mistake. Do not send the check back, but send copies of the correspondance relating to the non- payment of funds that were owed you.
Ask them again to review their records...the ball is in their court, now!

Ralph said...

I agree with molly. It is the money owed you. Cash it.

Mesmerix said...

Some advice I've always lived by: if I have to question whether something is right or wrong, and/or if I'm attempting to rationalize to myself how something would be okay... it's most likely a bad idea.

Call them. Call someone high up and ask if this is the reimbursement that was owed you or if this was a mistake. Offer to return it, but also remind them of what they owe you from last year.

If you don't instictively feel something is right, then it's probably not. Go with your gut.

kateb said...

Ahh..this one's tough. Because they OWE you the money.

But, even though it is just so tempting, their having done something wrong doesn't justify your doing something wrong.

What I would do is to personally take the check back with as much detail as you have about the checks you did NOT receive (and very few people can do anything other than state - I had expected a check from you for about this amount at about this time. You can't give a check number or the amount on the check because it wasn't even written) and say 'here is your check. You sent it to me by mistake and you owe me xxx money already so you can see it was difficult to bring this in - so here's your check.......where are mine?"

Mad Jack said...

Hi Mike.

In the first instance you chose to forgive the debt instead of taking it to the state & federal wage and hour folks, and / or your attorney. In simpler terms, you decided to shine it on.

Now the client over pays you. You must return it, with or without mention of the previous debt.

The deal here is that you are an honest man, and no matter how other people conduct their own screwed up lives, you must remain honest.


Now me, I'd have sued them for the money, charged interest, damages and attorney fees that Eff Lee only dreams about, then hired Joey to adjust a few attitudes with a bat and some pepper spray. But that's just me.

mesa dui lawyer said...

Almost anyone can go under that. It's a good experience though.