We get paid $8 for lunch

“Don’t cheat, don’t lie, don’t steal.”

A convenient phrase to (over)simplify an ethics program.

I often tell the employees I serve that if anyone asks them to do something that feels like cheating, lying or stealing, it’s a red flag and they should pause. Whatever they have been asked to do is likely to compromise our values of trust and integrity.

We would like to think that the obvious does not need to be stated. But what seems obvious on a blog post or in a classroom setting is not so obvious when we add the emotional and financial pressures of the workplace.

In my late teens, I worked as a helper on delivery trucks for a large corporation. It was a union job and our contract allowed us to be reimbursed for lunch. Each morning, the truck drivers/salesmen would agree on where to meet for lunch. On my first day on the job, the waitress gave everyone at the table a receipt and I completed mine. One of the drivers, a 30-year veteran, saw that I had written $5.50 on my receipt, took it, and asked the waitress to give me a new receipt. He told me “We get paid $8 for lunch. Write $8 on your receipt.” Everyone else at the table chuckled, and I complied.

Of course, we didn’t get paid $8 for lunch. We got reimbursed up to $8. I was young. I wanted to fit in. I needed the job. And so I didn’t pay attention to that feeling that I was cheating, lying and stealing. Because of the pressures at play, within seconds I rationalized my behavior and thought “Well, the union negotiated for $8, so it must be OK.”

Perhaps things would have been different if the company had an ethics program, if it had a confidential hotline, if it communicated its values and the importance of accurate books and records, or being a good steward of the shareholders’ money.

It’s hard to tell, 30 years later. The world has changed.

But I do remember the pressures that I felt at that moment. And those pressures haven’t changed much today.

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