The business of doing good
"Theft Rising at U.S. Wal-Mart Stores" noted a recent Associated Press business story. The article pointed out that the retailing giant is being hit by a tidalwave of shoplifting. Employers and customers alike are hauling out goods without paying for them.
Now, the AP report says that Wal-Mart is not saying much on the record about the thefts. However, its inventory is getting smaller and smaller. The AP surmises that the shrinkage has been caused by "shoplifting, employee theft, paperwork errors and supplier fraud."
Last year, Wal-Mart decided it was not going to prosecute minor shoplifting cases. Instead, it chose to concentrate on major shoplifting rings. While the AP claims that Wal-Mart has cut its security force, the news organization also reports that the company denies it has reduced security staff.
Of course, Wal-Mart, just like any other company, has a right to decide how best to police shoplifting and fraud. But I don't think the issue here is whether the company is cracking down hard enough on thieves. The real issue is this: some people walking through Wal-Mart's doors believe that they are entitled to steal.
While it may seem astounding to think that entitlements now include theft, it only makes sense, given the permissiveness of our society. If schools, courthouses, and municipal buildings don't post the command, "Thou Shalt Not Steal," it stands to reason that children would grow up believing that stealing isn't all that bad.
One union-backed group has apparently indicated that worker discontent is playing a part in employee theft—a truly mind-boggling claim. If I'm unhappy with my boss, does that give me the right to steal from him? Also, it should be noted that Wal-Mart officials say that employee morale is actually on the rise, which blows a hole through the theory that staffers are trying to steal their way to happiness.
It should be noted that this problem goes well beyond Wal-Mart. The National Retail Federation is reporting that theft cost retail outlets $41.6 billion last year. Sam Walton once referred to theft as one of retailers' top profit killers. And it should be duly noted that anything that kills profits, in the end, kills jobs. So it's actually in the best interests of worker advocates to do all they can to condemn employee theft.
However, instead, we hear rationalizations for employee theft. Consider this Associated Press quote from a former Wal-Mart bakery worker in Texas, "I am not the type to steal, but because we are so mistreated, when I saw things I just didn't do anything." The old-fashioned response to a controversial corporate policy was to raise one's voice in complaint. The 21st century answer is to turn a blind eye toward pilfering.
I have news for the former Wal-Mart baker: many of us—customers and employees alike—disagree with some of the things that the world's largest retailer does. But the moral response is not to give tacit approval to stealing from the store aisles. Because, in the end, stealing from Wal-Mart doesn't just hurt the big executives. It hurts the senior citizen trying to earn extra spending money as a greeter. And it hurts the family of four down the road trying to buy enough groceries to keep going. And it hurts the kids who are looking to us adults to provide some moral compass for their lives. I would hope that the lesson to be learned from this is: thou shalt not steal from Wal-Mart—or anyone else.
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