Sticky Fingers

Topic: Due Process

Characters: Susan, Human Resources Manager in a large retail store, one year of service Mike, Loss Prevention/Security Manager in the same store, ten years of service; Todd, a salesman in the jewelry department, three years of service


One month has now passed since a diamond-studded watch was noticed missing from the cases in the jewelry department of this retail store. External theft has already been ruled out, and Mike has been studying the videotapes made by closed-circuit TV that day.

Mike comes into Susan’s office to report his findings from the investigation of the missing watch. He tells her his department has studied the tapes and cannot determine who stole the watch but that only one employee, Todd, handled the watch that day. Although Mike knows that failing a lie-detector test cannot be used to dismiss T odd, he points out that T odd was the only one to fail the test when asked if he stole the watch. Since Mike cannot close this investigation without a suspect, he proposes that Susan look through T odd’s employment file to determine if there are any alternative reasons for firing this employee.

After diligent examination of Todd’s file, Susan notices that his application and sworn bonding form do not exactly reflect the same prior information such as previous employment. Under the company’s rules, this may be grounds for termination; however, Susan never would have noticed it had it not been for Mike’s zeal to pin the theft on Todd. Susan also recognizes that Mike’s performance is based on his ability to catch internal thieves. Susan does not think it is fair to let Todd continue working if he did steal the watch; however, she feels that he is also innocent until proven guilty despite the circumstantial evidence.

Author: Originally developed by Gloria Park, graduate student at Washington University, as a class project in “Ethical Decision Making.” Edited and submitted by Dr. Raymond L. Hilgert, Professor of Management and Industrial Relations, Washington University.

What Are the Relevant Facts?

  1. A watch has been stolen.
  2. Todd, a jewelry salesman, was the only person observed handling the watch.
  3. Todd has failed a lie-detector test.
  4. Susan notes that Todd’s application and sworn bonding form are not consistent.
  5. Susan would not have noticed the irregularities on Todd’s application had it not been for Mike’s suggestion

What Are the Ethical Issues?

  1. What are the typically appropriate grounds for terminating an employee who is suspected of theft?
  2. If an employer has very strong circumstantial evidence that an employee is guilty of theft but the evidence is not conclusive, is it ethical to terminate the employee on the basis of factors that were not themselves the real reason for the termination?
  3. What are the moral rights of employees suspected of theft?

Who Are the Primary Stakeholders?

  • Susan
  • Mike
  • Todd
  • All employees in the store
  • All stockholders of the company

What Are the Possible Alternatives?

  1. Fire Todd based on the discrepancies in his application and bonding form.
  2. Do nothing.

What Are the Ethics of the Alternatives?

  1. Ask questions based on a “utilitarian” perspective. For example:
  2. What benefits and costs will each alternative impose on the various stakeholders?
  3. What are the probable long-range benefits and costs of each of the alternatives?
  4. Are there adequate ways of measuring the benefits and costs imposed on the stakeholders?
  • Ask questions based on a “rights” perspective. For


  1. What rights do employees have? Do employees have a right to know when they are suspected of a crime? Do they have a right to “due process” in an employment situation? Do they have a right to know the real reason why they are terminated?
  2. What are the rights of employers? Do they have a right to protect themselves by firing employees when there is some probability that they may be responsible for theft?
  3. What are the rights of the other stakeholders in the situation? Which alternative promises to best respect the rights of the stakeholders?
  • Ask questions based on a “justice” perspective.

For example:

  1. What burdens would be placed on Todd if he is not told the real reason for his termination? What burden would be placed on the employer if Todd is told the real reason for his termination? Which of these two ways of distributing burdens is most fair?
  2. If Todd is terminated, who benefits and who is burdened? Who benefits and who is burdened if Todd is not eliminated? Which distribution of benefits and burdens is most fair?
  3. If Susan fires Todd for a paperwork technicality, should she follow suit and check the other members of the jewelry department? Of the store?
  4. If Todd really did steal the watch, is it fair for him to be able to continue his employment?