A boy, looking around 15 years old and dressed in baggy Bermuda shorts and a T shirt was about to leave the supermarket after having purchased a kilogram of rice when the billing clerk called out to him and asked him what he had in his pockets. When the boy answered, “Nothing,” the billing clerk walked up to the boy and demanded that he empty his pockets. The boy refused to do so, whereupon the billing clerk stated that he would call the police. Hearing this, the boy took out a chocolate bar from one of the pockets of his baggy Bermuda shorts and gave it to the billing clerk, who immediately put his hand into the boy’s pockets and brought out some more chocolate bars and a few small packets of almonds and cashewnuts! By this time, the Manager, a middle-aged man, had reached the spot. The billing clerk reported to him that the boy, who had purchased a kilogram of rice worth Rs. 60, had shoplifted items worth around Rs. 400!
The boy immediately protested that he was being wrongly accused by the billing clerk, saying he had bought these items at another shop. The billing clerk angrily landed a tight slap on the boy’s cheek and was about to do more, but the Manager firmly restrained him and ordered him to go back to the billing counter.
The Manager showed the boy the supermarket’s price labels on the shoplifted items, and gently told him that there was no doubt that these items had been shoplifted. The boy, who was weeping and trembling, kept saying, “I’m sorry.” The Manager put his arm around the boy’s shoulder and said, “Your parents are our regular customers. They are very nice people. Do you think they would be happy that you’ve done something like this? Normally, we take very strict action against shoplifters. Bu, since you are a young boy, and because we think this is the first time, we will not take any action against you this time. I hope you realise that you’ve done something wrong. Please don’t do this again. Go home now.” The boy thanked him repeatedly and left.
I witnessed this entire incident two days back. My immediate reaction was to appreciate the manner in which the Manager handled the situation, though I could not help wondering whether he would have handled the situation in the same way if the boy had belonged to a poor family. Would he would have encouraged, perhaps instructed his staff to beat up the boy?
Later, I wondered: what is likely to happen now?
a. The boy’s parents are likely to be ignorant about the incident. In this case,
i. The boy may be tempted to try shoplifting at other supermarkets, taking care to ensure he doesn’t lift too much each time since he would have ‘learnt the lesson’ that it was his bulging pockets that gave him away this time.
ii. The boy may not attempt shoplifting or any other dishonest acts ever again.
b. If the boy’s parents learn about the incident from the boy, it is most likely that the boy will claim that he was wrongly accused, that it was all a misunderstanding, etc.. Most probably, his parents will believe him, tell him to be careful of ‘bad people’ in future and decide that they all should not patronise the particular supermarket.
In both cases, it’s difficult to say whether the boy has learnt that honesty is the best policy, or whether he has learnt that getting caught was his mistake. He may have learnt one wrong lesson: if he’s caught and he’s guilty, he can get away by issuing a ‘sincere apology’! Perhaps, if it’s a serious crime, he could get away by ‘offering to recuse himself for 6 months’ as an act of atonement!!
I think the Manager could have handled the situation in a much better manner, particularly since he knows the boy’s parents. He should have asked the boy’s parents to come to the supermarket, given them proof that their son had shoplifted, and requested them to take corrective action to prevent recurrence of this incident, in his supermarket or in any other shop.
What do you think? Shouldn’t we take steps to prevent corruption and crime? Does our attitude of ‘forgive and forget’ allow people to get away too easily? Are we actually encouraging corruption and crime by this excessively soft approach?
(This post was originally published on Nov 30, 2013.)