I was with a group of Wisconsin and Michigan-based business leaders earlier this month. Somehow the familiar accents of home set my mind wandering to the past, and I was inspired to share a teenage moral dilemma that I’d never wrestled to the ground. After I told the story that created my dilemma, I asked the group, “What would you do?” Now I am asking the same question, of my little band of blog readers.
Scene: I was about 19. I worked for a summer as a cashier/counter waitress at an Elias Brothers Big Boy restaurant. It was on Eight Mile Road, the location made infamous by Eminem’s movie. The restaurant neighborhood was pretty seedy, and I had an armed security guard by my side all day long, to protect the cash register.
The Protagonists: “The Evil Triplets.” The restaurant was owned by a portly set of middle-aged Greek immigrant triplets. A sister and two brothers. Looking back now, as an adult and business person, I suspect that protecting that restaurant investment required an enormous amount of wary vigilance. It was always evident in the palpable distrust that those owners eminated. They were not nice people. They would dock me for being short more than 50 cents on the cash register. (I learned to make change flawlessly. I also learned to spot a scammer looking to confuse me into giving too much change.) They once made me sit in their smelly, greasy little office sweating, unpaid for two hours of overtime, when the cash in my drawer came up short $400. One of the triplets just kept counting the cash over and over, sweating even more than me. It turned out one of the other triplets had taken a deposit to the bank without telling anyone.
And here’s how truly despicable these people were. The Big Boy was in a black neighborhood. All the employees were white. Most of the job applications I took at the counter were from local, ie. black, people. The triplets told me to write a racial identity code on the top corner of each application. That was a whole moral dilemma in itself, but not the subject of this post.
“The Evil Twins”. Because the restaurant was run-down, and because the owners only hired white people who lived reasonably near-by, most of the staff did not exactly come from privileged backgrounds. Most of the folks there were just trying to survive the place, and make an honest living. But there was some tough characters in the lot. The worst example of this employee pool was the set of waitress twins. Rotten to the core, they created nothing but trouble for the other employees, pretty much like white trash Heathers. I avoided them like the plague.
The incident. Two of the triplets took a highly unusual business trip out of town, leaving the third one to inadequately mind the store. During that interlude, a huge quantity of steaks disappeared from the walk-in. Coincidentally the evil waitress twins invited the rest of the staff to a blow-out barbeque.
I did not go to the shindig.
And herein lies my dilemma. A couple days later, I got a telephone call from one of the restaurant owners, asking me if I knew anything about the missing steaks. What do you think I should have responded?
I’ll let you know what I actually said, after I get some votes or comments in.
Here is what I actually said: “I don’t know who took the steaks.”
What I wish I said: “The twins had a big BBQ while you were gone.”
If I had been satisfied with my original response, I don’t think this situation would have bothered me for so long. I answered what I did because it was factual. I really did not have any proof that the twins took the steaks. But a wonderful business leader in Wisconson, Jan Eddy, pointed out to me that you can be factual, “do no harm”, but still do the right thing. She advised the second response, the one I wish I’d said.
Anyway, at the time I had no confidence that the restaurant owners would protect my identity, and I was probably pretty scared of those nasty twins. In my Big Boy waitress days, I was a scrawny little thing, who didn’t even weigh enough to donate blood. Those twins would have enjoyed mopping me all over the glass-strewn restaurant parking lot, just for sport.
But I like Jan Eddy’s response. I told my kids about it tonight so they would have that framework in their heads if they ever ran into a situation like this. “You can be factual, you can do no harm, but you can also do the right thing.”