You are in charge of running a retail store and one of your cashiers, an elderly woman, is caught committing a minor embezzlement. Fearing that she might be dismissed, she approaches you to plead forgiveness. She tells you that this is the first time she embezzled money from the company and promises that she’ll never do it again. She tells you about her sad situation, namely that her husband is very ill and that she was going to use the money to buy medicines for him. She becomes extremely emotional and your heart is melting. What do you do?
Something similar to the above situation was described by Mr. Munger in a talk given by him. He used two models to produce his answer. The first model was probability. Mr. Munger implores you to reduce the problem to the mathematics of Fermat/Pascal by asking the question: How likely is it that the old woman’s statement, “I’ve never done it before, I’ll never do it again” is true?
Note that this question has nothing whatsoever to do with the circumstances in this particular instance of embezzlement. Rather, Munger is relying on his knowledge of the theory of probability. He asks: “If you found 10 embezzlements in a year, how many of them are likely to be first offences?”
The possible actions are: (1) She is lying and you fire her (good outcome – because it cures the problem and sends the right signals); (2) She is telling the truth and you fire her (bad outcome for her but good outcome for system integrity); (3) She is lying and you pardon her (bad outcome for system integrity); and (4) She is telling the truth and you pardon her (bad outcome for system integrity because it will send the wrong signal that its ok to embezzle once).
Weighed with probabilities, and after considering signalling effects of your actions on other people’s incentives and its effect on system integrity, its clear that the woman should be fired.
Looked this way, this is not a legal problem or an ethical problem. Its an arithmetical problem with a simple solution. This extreme reductionism of practical problems to a fundamental discipline (in this case mathematics), is, of course, the hallmark of the Munger way of thinking and living.
So, from a leader’s perspective, it’s more important to have the right systems with the right incentives in place, rather than trying to be fair to one person – even if that person is the leader or someone close to the leader.
The logic is that leaders must look at such situations from their civilization’s point of view rather than the viewpoint of an individual. If we create systems which encourage embezzlements, or tolerate such systems, we’ll ruin our civilization. If we don’t punish the woman, the idea that its ok to do minor embezzlement once in a while, will spread because of incentive effects, and social proof (everyone’s doing it so its ok). And we cannot let that idea spread because that will ruin our civilization. Its that simple.