D-I-Y Christmas Bonus?
November 28, 2007 9:25 AM   Subscribe

Today at work, a closet was being cleaned out, many items were being tossed in a trash cart. I noticed that a few of these items were unopened, brand new (though out-of-date) items, and out of curiousity, checked to see if they were worth anything. I noticed that a few of them were going for not-insignificant amounts of money on ye olde eBay, and "rescued" them from the trash, thinking about creating a D-I-Y Christmas Bonus out of them by putting them up on eBay. Other co-workers have done similar things, selling a fair amount of old equipment at garage sales, etc, and none of my immediate peers seemed to think anything of it. Mrs. [anonymous], however, seems to feel that it's ethically wrong to do so, and more importantly potentially legally wrong. Does the hivemind have any knowledge of the legal (and/or ethical) implications of this D-I-Y Christmas Bonus? (For reference, we're probably talking $300 total, here.)
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (31 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Reduce, reuse, resell. I have no real idea of the legality, but I sure think it is ethical.
posted by dirtdirt at 9:33 AM on November 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Did you take them out of the trash or grab them before they hit the trash?

IIRC, even if in the trash, someone's garbage is their property until it's mixed with other peoples' garbage in most locales. So basically, you probably are in the wrong here, based on the info you've given.

If it was me, I'd likely just go to my boss and ask if they minded. If you've got the ok then, feel free. If not, best to return them to the trash they came from.
posted by Kickstart70 at 9:35 AM on November 28, 2007

I think it's ethical--filling up a dump or meeting the needs of two people (seller and buyer) seems a pretty straight-forward case to me.

Legally speaking, garbage is free if it's at the side of the road, but I think dumpsters are personal property. Since you got it before then without trespassing, I'm thinking it's mostly legal, but your company probably could cause a fuss if they were jerks (which it doesn't sound like).

Sounds like win-win-win; company doesn't have to pollute/use dumpster space, you get money, some guy gets rare item x.
posted by JeremiahBritt at 9:38 AM on November 28, 2007

If the company is OK with you taking it home, I think it's fine to sell it.

I'm actually kind of shocked that companies haven't figured out they could make money on their overstock or old items by reselling them on ebay.

When I worked at big retail company, one of the assets protection people would complain about people buying up things that were clearanced because they were out of season and then reselling them online next season for a large profit. The company could have easily did the same thing, but it never occurred to them to try.
posted by drezdn at 9:41 AM on November 28, 2007

I don't know about the legality of the practice, but to me the ethics of reusing/recycling vs. wasting an item and filling up a landfill are clear. You should rescue the items.

If you want a perfectly clear conscience, how about donating these items to a charity instead? If you think your bosses will be receptive, talk to them about donating new and gently-used items to an appropriate charity or charities. Schools, especially, can use all sorts of equipment and will be grateful for what you can give.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:47 AM on November 28, 2007

I'm actually kind of shocked that companies haven't figured out they could make money on their overstock or old items by reselling them on ebay.

This is almost certainly to avoid having employees "retire" inventory for personal gain and have the company buy new equipment unnecessarily.
posted by mkb at 9:53 AM on November 28, 2007

i think your company could probably give you a big hassle about it if they ever found out--especially since it wasn't yet out of the building and really in the trash or whatever.

so the question is: will your company find out? if they do, will they care?

best bet is to just ask whoever's in charge of the stockroom or the similar types of items. just tell them you'd like to have the stuff, not that you want to sell it, and they'll probably let you have it.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 9:55 AM on November 28, 2007

This is almost certainly to avoid having employees "retire" inventory for personal gain and have the company buy new equipment unnecessarily.

It would be the companies doing the reselling of items that they would otherwise have marked down.
posted by drezdn at 9:56 AM on November 28, 2007

IANAL but there have been lawsuits revolving around when something becomes "trash," in which the verdict was that as soon as you set it out by the curb, you've abandoned your interest in it, and it is trash free for the taking.

The city I live in (and many others) has a few scheduled "bulky trash collection" days each year, orchestrated to encourage scavengers to salvage stuff so that the city doesn't need to collect it. Shoot, there used to be a store in town that sold nothing but stuff rescued from the curb (and I found some of my own trash there once!). This system would be impossible if trash weren't considered abandoned when set at the curb.
posted by adamrice at 9:57 AM on November 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ethically I think it's idiotic to suggest that there's anything wrong with appropriating things that are going to be thrown out. Legally it may be questionable, at least until it gets out to a public tip (and then other, municipality based legal issues may come into effect) but the idea that you're going to get in trouble over it is pretty dubious: I think Mrs. Anonymous is overreacting (though if you're hoping this thread is going to give any help in that arena, heh, good luck with that; been married long?)

For my own part I'll say that on a few occasions I've rescued things from the trash I just asked the person who seemed to be in charge of clearing it out if they thought it would be okay and the answer has always been yes.
posted by nanojath at 9:59 AM on November 28, 2007

I'm actually kind of shocked that companies haven't figured out they could make money on their overstock or old items by reselling them on ebay.

You'd be surprised at the amount of accounting headache necessary for this. Our IT department explored selling/auctioning off old computer equipment and in the end, we figured out that it was way too much trouble for the money. Expensive equipment follows a strict depreciation schedule in the books and attempting to sell it later on completely throws off the bookkeeping. With eBay it gets even worse because every unit can have a different final auction price (as opposed to mass liquidating it at a set $/unit price).
posted by junesix at 10:01 AM on November 28, 2007

I used to do this on eBay. We used the money, as a group, to go out for lunch. Every. Day. For. Many. Months.
posted by k8t at 10:06 AM on November 28, 2007

Ethically, I'd say you are doing a good thing by rescuing these items from the trash.
posted by ssg at 10:13 AM on November 28, 2007

Adding to the possible illegality of situations like this is the potential that the business took some sort of write-down for that equipment being junked. If they've written it off, and you've gone and sold it, that's likely to make someone in tax land very cranky.

Ultimately, though, if you feel it was morally and ethically right to do what you did, then you shouldn't have any problem asking your boss, or whichever manager was in charge of the cleanup efforts if you could have those items. They may want to take the profit for the company instead of you taking it (which would be their right) or they may let you have the stuff or they may tell you why it needs to actually go in the garbage.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:28 AM on November 28, 2007

Really what you are doing is ensuring they are trashed elsewhere, across the nation, in the fullness of time. Sort of like how the POWs in the Great Escape got rid of the earth from the tunnels.
posted by A189Nut at 10:29 AM on November 28, 2007

I think Mrs. Anonymous is overreacting (though if you're hoping this thread is going to give any help in that arena, heh, good luck with that; been married long?)

Perhaps it will - since when do all wives act in one way, i.e. sticking to their guns in the face of other opinions? If the opinions are overwhelming in the way of the opposite of hers, maybe she'll change her mind, like, I don't know, many people might do? Sheesh.

I personally would be very afraid to do this if it's a secret from management. I think that would be grounds for firing from my office, so I'd want permission first. I don't think there's anything unethical about it, but a big firm might.
posted by agregoli at 10:47 AM on November 28, 2007

It sounds like you're talking about products your company makes. Is that right? But I think it's also possible you're talking about products your company bought for business use but never ended up using.

If it is the former: I work in publishing, and I'm pretty sure I couldn't just collect discarded books from around the office and sell them to the Strand (or on Amazon or eBay), even though I am free to pick up books and keep them myself, or give them to friends, or whatever. In fact, I'm pretty sure I've heard of people being fired for selling free books from work. Now, that may be a corporate compliance policy as opposed to the law of the land. If you really only want to do this if it's totally above-board? You should ask, or at least look up your company's policies on these types of things. If you don't care about what the company itself thinks, but rather just larger moral and legal issues...well, the former is personal, and the latter probably depends on the "when is garbage free" question.

As for why companies don't do this themselves--well, I get the impression that what companies can and will do with product they can't sell the usual way is fairly complicated. But it might partially have to do with maintaining good relationships with their main accounts.
posted by lampoil at 11:17 AM on November 28, 2007

My place of employ has specific rules against removing anything from the trash for personal use (for reselling or just taking it home). It's a fire-able offense, to keep people from "throwing out
something they plan to scavenge later. Check your company's handbook before you proceed.
posted by donajo at 11:17 AM on November 28, 2007

I'm actually kind of shocked that companies haven't figured out they could make money on their overstock or old items by reselling them on ebay.

This is almost certainly to avoid having employees "retire" inventory for personal gain and have the company buy new equipment unnecessarily.

It would be the companies doing the reselling of items that they would otherwise have marked down.

In addition to the accounting and tax headaches mentioned above, selling old stuff is simply not worth the time of employees who have more profitable things to do.

Having said that, for ethical reasons I personally will spend 2-3 minutes pulling serviceable office supplies out of the trash when I can conveniently do so. It's technically not worth my time, but I can't stand the waste of good stuff.
posted by JimN2TAW at 11:25 AM on November 28, 2007

I've worked for many a company who took write offs on items and had no problem with employees taking items that would otherwise end up in the trash.

Also, part of the reason companies don't put their old stuff on eBay is the hassle of doing so as well as the funked up stuff about reselling and tax implications, etc.

The company I recently left had TONS of stuff that had to be cleared out of an office they closed down. I told my boss and another member of the home office team that I was going to sell some of the stuff and I used that money to furnish a couple of home offices and buy printers for the three people that were now going to work from those offices. No one blinked an eye about it and I even told them that I was going to keep the remainder for my time.
posted by FlamingBore at 11:35 AM on November 28, 2007

This is probably going to be against Official Company Policy: they don't want people trashing perfectly good company property just so they, or another employee, can profit off it (rightly so). Some companies, and probably all government offices, will also require that property with any residual value whatsoever be returned to a central point so it can be distributed to another office if necessary.

And then there's reality. In every mailroom, office services department, IT department and cafeteria in the country, the staff do exactly this. I ate [utility company] cafeteria leftovers daily when I was in school (thanks, Mom!), my computer was retired from [ad agency], and I used to have stacks of magazines courtesy of [media buyer]'s mailroom. We support services folks don't get fat (or usually, any) bonuses, expense accounts or respect. Raiding the company trash is the only perk we've got!

So ethically, I think you're in the clear, as long as 1) you're not "trashing" anything of real use to the company, and 2) you're not far better compensated already than the guys who would have the next shot at the stuff. :)

And as far as getting in trouble with the Man? Just keep it on the downlow. I mean, if it's a firing offense, so was stealing those Post-It notes from the supply closet last week...
posted by a young man in spats at 11:36 AM on November 28, 2007

If it is product the company makes, all kinds of problems could make this a really bad idea. For example, you can't sell prototype and pre-production product, because it could interfere with marketing (a lame, but still real, reason) it could be functionally defective (which would damage reputation), and it could easily be dangerous (measures to insure safety haven't been implemented on that version).

On the other hand, reusing and recycling are good!
posted by Chuckles at 11:39 AM on November 28, 2007

Ask your boss. His opinion is the only one that really matters in this case.
posted by electroboy at 11:45 AM on November 28, 2007

anything from the trash is fair game. it would only be unethical if, say, you were selling your clients' social security numbers to identity thieves.
posted by thinkingwoman at 11:47 AM on November 28, 2007

INAL but i think its company property until it hits the street...though i don't know how this works as a company would have pick up services...
posted by Black_Umbrella at 12:00 PM on November 28, 2007

I worked for a record company and they would regularly clean out the closets and trash old promo CDs, etc. If you were caught taking those and reselling them to used record shops or on eBay you would be fired.

I think it really depends what kind of items you're talking about.
posted by gfrobe at 12:32 PM on November 28, 2007

You might want to suggest to the boss that ebay or craigslist are an excellent way to recycle unused office supplies, and that this keeps them out of the waste stream as an added bonus. If your boss accepts the suggestion, you win. If your boss says the company can't be bothered, ask if you can recycle the stuff yourself.
posted by theora55 at 1:34 PM on November 28, 2007

Just to add another wrinkle to the plan, if you work for a state or federally funded institution and not a private corporation you may be in violation of state or federal laws by reselling property purchased with public money.

In our institution we are not allowed to sell or profit from anything that was paid for by state money, unless it was bought for retail purchases.

We can donate unused or no longer useful items to charitable organizations, provided they are not going to repackage and sell said items. Nor can we (without special permission from the governor) send our old broken computers for refurbishing and get a discount from that refurbishing for new computers. No library book sales of books we don't need anymore, no selling of unused post-it notes on ebay. Nothing.

So just re-affirming what many others have said, check with your boss or the company manual to make sure this is legit. Because while I think it is blindingly stupid to make you throw out perfectly good stuff, it may be policy.
posted by teleri025 at 1:45 PM on November 28, 2007

The legality would seem to depend on where you rescued the items. Once out on the sidewalk, in a curbside can, or handed off to the garbage collector, it looks like you're probably fine. [1] [2] [3] [4] If it was still on their private property, under the company's control, etc. this is probably a really bad idea. And your state or locality may have its own rules to watch out for. [5]

posted by nakedcodemonkey at 1:46 PM on November 28, 2007

If the situation is as you described, and it is illegal, then the law is an ass and should be ignored.
posted by pompomtom at 2:33 PM on November 28, 2007

It's the company's property. Ask if it's okay. However, better yet, ask if you can sell the items on eBay for the company. This may give you $300 worth of kudos at work. When I was doing my MBA, we read a case study where some guy swooped into a dot com after the crash and raised a quarter million by selling all their Aeron chairs on eBay.
posted by acoutu at 6:35 PM on November 28, 2007

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