Friday, March 31, 2017

The Economics of Careless Employees and Misplaced Orders

I witnessed a scene recently that made me uncomfortable, but it inspired quite a lot of thought. Here’s what happened. I ordered sushi at a local place and went to pick it up. When I got my order, the girl who handed it to me called off the items I had ordered. The last item was “tekka-don”, tuna over rice. I had actually ordered “sake-don”, salmon over rice, and I said so. The owner, who is also the sushi chef, looked annoyed and started making my order. The girl apologized, “I’m sorry.” The owners said, “No ‘sorry.’ You pay.” As in, he was going to make her pay for the wrong order, presumably unless someone else ordered it in the next hour or so. It seemed really unfair. It was certainly uncomfortable and cast a pall over the entire restaurant.

So I felt really sorry for this poor girl, who made an honest mistake. At first I felt bad and thought, geez, I should just pay for the tekka don. But I remembered specifying over the phone, “Sake-don. It’s salmon over rice.” The two sound similar over the phone, especially if you are working in a busy kitchen. That’s why I explained what the item actually was after saying its name. There’s quite a lot of employee turnover at this place, and I’ve had to explain my order to a lot of new employees. It wasn’t my fault. The girl really did screw up because she wasn't being very attentive. Still, I thought the owner, not the employee, should eat the cost of the occasional misheard order.

Then I thought about all those stupid “outrage” stories that show up on my Facebook feed, where some supposed injustice happens over a trivial infraction. If you dig into these stories, you often find that the infraction that triggered the outrageous response was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. In other words, maybe this was the third or fourth wrong order. Sushi is expensive. Time spent wasted on a $15 menu item is time not spent making another $15 menu item. That’s lost revenue. This guy is always moving when I’m there to pick up my order, so wasting his time is a big deal. Plus there is the cost of the fish that gets wasted. (Economics quiz: Am I double-counting here to add the lost revenue to the wasted fish?) A sushi chef with employees has to somehow make sure they are making as few mistakes as possible. Sometimes that means being very blunt and punitive with employees. They are handling valuable merchandise, so they need to show appropriate care.

I doubt that he ever charged her anyway. Maybe he said it to scare her, or maybe he intended to make her pay but thought the better of it. I’m guessing she got to the end of her shift and just left. He didn’t actually pull her aside and ring her up. Or maybe he did. Or maybe he actually made some kind of deduction on her pay stub. But this potentially runs afoul of some sort of labor law, and maybe he thought the better of creating a paper trail proving he violated such a law. At any rate, I think someone in his situation can’t just say, “Oh, that’s okay” when a careless employee costs him $15. He has to make sure that those correctable errors get corrected, as much as is feasible. She’s still working there, and she double-checks my order every time now. As unfair and humiliating as the treatment seemed, she decided to keep her job. Whatever "mistreatment" she had to endure, she apparently decided that the job was worth it.

Is it even legal to charge an employee for a misplaced order? Should it be? Shouldn’t I, as a libertarian, oppose any such labor laws restricting this practice? Is there an implied contract between employer and employee that forbids such a punishment? What is the “common law” that rules here? If she were to sue over the violation of such an implied contract, how would that case be adjudicated? And is the existing common law correct? I don’t know the answers to any of the legal questions, but these were some stray thoughts that came into my head. If you came here looking for moral clarity, I don’t have any to offer. But I’m quite certain that my initial reaction of “That’s completely unfair!” was mistaken. Or at the very least, it was far too simple. 

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