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Why good people sometimes do bad things: 52 reflections on ethics at work
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3. Bagels at work:
honesty and dishonesty
Many company canteens are currently experimenting with self-service checkout systems.The
classic situation forces employees, after selecting their meal, to pass a cashier before sitting
down to eat. But a cashier costs money, and for that reason many businesses have converted
to another system: employees must use a self-checkout system, without the involvement
of a cashier. Some supermarket chains are also experimenting with this. Can people cope
with the responsibility? In this case no large sums of money are involved, such as those that
Lincoln was exposed to in the previous chapter.
The story of the ‘bagel man’, described by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, is very
enlightening. Out of the blue they received a call from a certain Paul Feldman offering his
sales igures. Who was Paul Feldman, what did he sell and what did he have to show them?
Paul Feldman had worked for the Center for Naval Analyses in Washington since the 1960s.
He had acquired the habit of buying bagels for everyone whenever his department won a new
research contract. Because this proved popular with his colleagues, Feldman decided to bring
some in every Friday. This quickly became a success, also attracting colleagues from other
departments. Eventually Feldman was taking ifteen boxes of bagels to his ofice every week.
To cover the costs he placed a money box with the price next to the bagels.
In the eighties, when new management took over, Feldman decided to leave and make selling
bagels his profession. He went around ofices in Washington with a simple proposition. Every
morning he would put down one or more trays of bagels by the entrance to the canteen, and
beside it a wooden box with a slot in which consumers could put money. It turned out to be a
gap in the market. Within a few years he was supplying 8,400 bagels to 140 ofices.
Because Feldman kept track of how much he picked up from each company, he collected
interesting data and a ine experiment was created: stealing was simple, so the only thing that
counted was the integrity of the consumer. In his old department takings were 95 percent.
Everyone knew Feldman, so why wouldn’t they pay? Feldman therefore blames the remaining
3. Bagels at work: honesty and dishonesty