The Times: Job file: If you have been overpaid, be very, very scared
By Simon Howard
May 16, 2004
Posted 17 May04
NOT long ago I sat through the proceedings of a High Court case, and for the whole first day the lawyers debated which definition of dishonesty would be used. As I learnt then, the term “dishonest” is not very precise. It covers everything from a little white lie about whom you met for a drink last night to the “dishonest appropriation of property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving that person of it” — in other words, theft.
But it’s not just the boys at Shell who should be concerned with honesty and integrity in business. With the implementation of the Proceeds of Crime Act, everyone needs to take heed — and here’s why.
Let’s take the highly improbable scenario that, due to an innocuous clerical error, this newspaper’s accounts department paid me twice for this modest column. Putting to one side my own view that it’s worth twice the rate anyway, what should I do? Send the money back? Issue a credit note or just play plain dumb and pretend I never noticed?
It might come as news but, under the terms of the act, if a customer pays twice and you take no action, then the overpayment is considered “proceeds of crime”, and by holding on to the money you’re committing a criminal act. That’s right, not a mild dose of civil fraud, but a full-blown criminal act.
Okay, I’m very sorry if anyone has ever paid me twice, but I’d still like to think that my integrity is intact.
“Integrity is a word that is often used and rarely understood,” said Roger Steare, an expert in business ethics. “For many people, it’s just a synonym for honesty, but integrity is in fact the word that describes the sum of all our principles and values.
“We must understand that, despite what politicians may claim, integrity is not an absolute. We’re all fallible and we develop integrity — our moral values — throughout our lives.”
So, just as lawyers identify shades of dishonesty, so ethics experts can define integrity and the development of conscience through its various stages.
Happily, you can discover which stage you’ve reached because Steare has created an online integrity test just for Sunday Times readers. So log on to www.rogersteare.com and try to better my own score of 42 indicating (quite rightly) a “principled conscience”. Now, what did I do with that second cheque?