Should I ask my employers if they're being generous or just stupid?
August 30, 2007 9:36 AM   Subscribe

I'm in the UK, working part-time for a large company. They're paying me too much. What now?

I work a few days a week for an hourly rate. I was just paid for the first time and the only way this amount makes sense is if they were paying me the proper hourly rate for a full 5-day working week. I get paid directly into my bank account and my payslip only has information about tax-withholdings, not about hours worked or any other clues.
Am I required by law to bring this to their attention? If I'm not (or even if I am) and decide not to tell them, what can they do if they notice the mistake? Can they retrieve the money from my account without my consent? Or just pay me less next time so that their bottom line is still the same? Could they fire me or take me to court to get their money back?
I'm leaving in a month for a better job, so I'm not worried about hurting future advancement here.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (20 answers total)
I'm not sure of your legal responsibilities as far as reporting the mistake, but it has been my experience that the company will seek remedy through simply paying you less to cover the difference in future paychecks.
posted by undercoverhuwaaah at 9:42 AM on August 30, 2007

In the US, they can pull the money back out of your account if they notice it. I've had that happen before.
posted by chundo at 9:43 AM on August 30, 2007

Ditto chundo. When I did payroll over Christmas for the place I work for, I accidentally overpaid a guy (damn AM/PM). His direct boss noticed it and alerted me, and our payroll specialist said that we'd withhold money from his next check to compensate. I alerted the person in question because I felt bad and he's a nice guy and I didn't want him to overspend or what have you, though I was under no obligation to do so if I felt like being a jerk, so said Mr. Payrollly McPayroller.
posted by Verdandi at 9:48 AM on August 30, 2007

There is no reason for you to collect extra remuneration that you have not earned, or has not been promised to you in a contract. I feel it is disingenuous to inquire whether or not you have a legal responsibility to bring this to the company's attention. You do, however, have a moral responsibility. And believe me, you do not want to take the money, hope they won't notice, and be faced with this problem popping up some time in the future.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:48 AM on August 30, 2007

When in doubt, do the right thing.

In more mercenary terms, you never know when you will interact with someone from that company again.

Call payroll and say "Hi, I think there was an error with my paycheque. I should have been paid X, but I was paid X+Y. Was this on purpose? If not, how do I return the surplus money?"

Taking the high road, as I was told this week by someone I deeply respect, may not always be the most personally profitable in the short term. But over time you'll end up better.

I know nothing about legal responsibilities around this, but in this case I think that your legal responsibilities are utterly irrelevant.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 9:51 AM on August 30, 2007

English courts have convicted people who spent money accidentally deposited in their account, when they knew it wasn't their money. Sometimes they have been sent to jail for months.
posted by grouse at 10:05 AM on August 30, 2007

I'm pretty certain they can't just suck it back out of your account in the UK. They will withhold it from future pay when they notice, and if that's not for a while you will look very dodgy. Best (and most ethical) bet is to go and see your boss/payroll/both, tell them what happened and either pay back the excess immediately, or if you've somehow spent it and there's a problem with returning it immediately ask to negotiate a regular reduction in your future pay packets until it's settled.
posted by biffa at 10:15 AM on August 30, 2007

Yes, they can force you to repay it -- it's not yours so legally you'll be holding it on "constructive trust" for them, in a similar way to bank errors in your favour.

Am I required by law to bring this to their attention? No, but they can sue for it (plus interest) for six years (I think).

If I'm not (or even if I am) and decide not to tell them, what can they do if they notice the mistake? They will probably invoice you for it (I don't think they can or would want to withhold your legitimate pay on your next pay date). If you don't pay they could sue you for it.

Can they retrieve the money from my account without my consent? No, not that I'm aware of. The case where this happened was the tax credits cock-up, but I presume that was under a direct debit.

Or just pay me less next time so that their bottom line is still the same? See above.

Could they fire me or take me to court to get their money back? It would be hard difficult to fire you for this one thing. Yes, they could sue you for the money plus interest. Suing for a debt is really easy for firms to do and they will likely just give it to a debt collector. Contact them, tell them about the mistake and offer to repay over a convenient time period (a month?).
posted by patricio at 10:21 AM on August 30, 2007

Am I required by law to bring this to their attention?

Yes. The 1968 Theft Act says:

A person is guilty of an offence if - (a) a wrongful credit has been made to an account kept by him or in respect of which he has any right or interest; (b) he knows or believes that the credit is wrongful; and (c) he dishonestly fails to take such steps as are reasonable in the circumstances to secure that the credit is cancelled.
posted by wackybrit at 10:22 AM on August 30, 2007

wackbrit: In that section of the Theft Act "wrongful credit" doesn't mean a payment made to an account in error. The offence in that section relates to stolen goods/proceeds of crime, so

"24A.(4) A credit to an account is also wrongful to the extent that it derives from—

(a) theft

(b) an offence under section 15A of this Act

(c) blackmail or

(d) stolen goods. "
posted by patricio at 10:43 AM on August 30, 2007

Happened to me, and employer accidentally set my 'daily rate' to be what my 'weekly rate' should be. I ended up with a massive paycheck.
I actually contacted HR and wrote a cheque the next day for the overage.
posted by smitt at 10:54 AM on August 30, 2007

I think the successful prosecutions were under other sections of the Theft Act.
posted by grouse at 11:57 AM on August 30, 2007

Employers can deduct over-payments from future wages, with a bar on you bringing any claim for the deductions, e.g. for paying less than National Minimum wage.

It would be hard difficult to fire you for this one thing.

Not difficult at all, while in the first year of employment.
posted by wilko at 12:09 PM on August 30, 2007

Is your better job in a completely different field? Because if you're at all worried about ever getting a reference from this employer, this is not the way to go out the door.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:32 PM on August 30, 2007

Just as a side note: When I was working for the US Census, I got two of every paycheck, and it took me a bit to realize what was happening. I never mentioned it, they never noticed, I got an extra couple of grand out of the US government.

IANAL, etc., but I had no problem keeping it.
posted by klangklangston at 12:59 PM on August 30, 2007

it would only be immoral if you spent it and had no intention of giving it back. That stated, I suggest you go buy yourself a share of say Apple stock and let it sit there till they notice the mistake- if there was even a mistake in the first place- pay them their due and enjoy whatever windfall that might come your way.
posted by bkeene12 at 2:43 PM on August 30, 2007

I don't understand how it can be moral to spend money that isn't yours, even if you say you intend to give the money back later. Why not now, then?

If you honestly suspect that it wasn't a mistake by your employer, then you have nothing to lose, and really everything to gain, by bringing it to your employer's attention.
posted by grouse at 3:12 PM on August 30, 2007

Anecdote: while working in the UK for a temp agency, they accidentally paid me twice. If I remember correctly, they phoned me up and asked me to sign something (or do something) to enable them to recover the money. It was a while ago, so my memory's hazy, but I'm not sure that they could easily have taken the money from me, without my approval. Of course, it was fairly obvious that if I'd hung onto the money, my future prospects would have been fairly poor.

I would be surprised if your employer doesn't eventually pick up on the mistake. At which point, while they might not be able to force you to return the money, the consequences of not doing so will probably outweigh the benefits of having it.

(You could probably get some good advice on this issue from Citizens Advice. I used to work for a company that provided employment law advice (IANAL) to employers; whenever we were contacted by employees we suggested they contact Citizens Advice).
posted by Infinite Jest at 3:30 PM on August 30, 2007

wackybrit, patricio: Nowadays, any case will be more likely to rely on the Fraud Act 2006. It's so ridiculously broad that you can pin pretty much anything on anyone with it, and as it's new there's no caselaw to narrow down various interpretations.
posted by djgh at 5:09 PM on August 30, 2007

What better way to show your new employer how trustworthy you are by bringing this to their attention, before the inevitable audit does?
posted by davejay at 12:20 AM on August 31, 2007

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