All of us like to think we’re pretty honest people.
And for the most part, that’s probably true.
But is our honesty proportionate to the scale of the crime we might commit, or the level of reward we serve to profit from? In other words, do we have a price?
For Michael Walsh, it was $350. A Walmart maintenance worker of 18 years, he had recently received a raise and was two years away from receiving his coveted loyalty card (some employees receive after 20 years).
But when the 45-year-old found a stack of $20s and $10s in the parking lot in Niskayuna, he paused – 30 minutes to be precise – before handing in the money to his manager. Two days later he was confronted with surveillance tape and fired.
“The only thing I did wrong was hesitate,” said Walsh.
Interestingly, he had found a $5 bill just minutes earlier, which was swiftly returned to his superior. But something made him hesitate when the stakes were higher.
Maybe as Michael stated to Times Union, he just got nervous. The customer, yelling and freaking out about her lost money in the store may have made him momentarily panic and delay handing the money over. Or possibly in that half-hour Michael was contemplating what he might do with $350.
Was his mind racing as he mentally spent the money? Had he been on holiday in a few years or did he have bills racking up? Was he thinking about his endangered loyalty card in those minutes?
Guilty conscience or not, Walsh took 30 minutes longer to do the right thing the second time around. And the only difference was the amount of cash he found.
Truth be told, we all have our own definition of stealing. We barter with ourselves what the risk of getting caught is, or how entitled we feel to what we take for free.
We’ve all downloaded a film or TV show illegally (or watched one that was). Perhaps we justified it by telling ourselves that these people already make a lot of money. Or what if we took a drink when the bartender forgot to charge us? How long did we hesitate before we slunk away to enjoy it? You may have even pocketed office supplies that you deemed inconsequential.
Perhaps being able to rationalise away stealing absolves us from guilt. If the value of the item that we take is disguised as free food, a free ride on the subway or a clerical error, maybe we don’t even think of it as theft. If there was physical money in our hands, it might make all the difference. But what amount of money isn’t worth the risk, and at what point (if any) does it become irresistible?
There’s no question that taking a stack of bills would be stealing. But Walsh may have told himself that the money was not in an envelope, nor did it bear any identification. It wasn’t as if he found someone’s wallet, with personal effects inside, and took a wad of cash.
He didn’t pickpocket. It wasn’t pre-meditated. And he didn’t even keep the money. But he pocketed it, he walked away – and most importantly, he hesitated.
Michael was punished, not for taking the money, but simply for thinking about taking the money. Despite a tussle with his conscience, a panic, and ultimately doing the right thing, he was fired. The fact that he thought about stealing was enough grounds for Walmart to terminate his employment.
As he said, it may have been the only thing he did wrong, but in the end his hesitation was actually the crime itself.