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Summary: Can it be viewed as unprofessional/suspicious to hand small amounts of money to a colleague in an office setting?


On two different occasions, when I was working in an office, two coworkers have asked to borrow money from me to get lunch. They didn't ask me to cover their lunch (which I consider to be much more acceptable). They asked to borrow money from me, with multiple people around. The reason that was given was "I forgot my wallet at home".

One of them had a family. I find it unusual that someone with a family at home wouldn't be able to pay their own lunch. In later interactions, he was quite arrogant and I found his other behavior rather strange.

I've always wondered how exactly this can be interpreted from a bystander's point of view. They see person A handing money to person B in an open office, but they don't know that the person A had asked to borrow it with the plan to repay the next day.

  • Can it be interpreted as bribery or fraud?
  • Would it be obvious that it's just a loan for lunch?
  • Is there a possible ulterior motive being assessment of camaraderie / collegiality?
  • Is this a trick or is it normal behavior?
  • Are there specific rules against this behavior?
  • Is this behavior acceptable?

Note: The situations occurred in Romania, but I'm curious how this is viewed in other countries, too.

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  • IMHO, it is NOT a good idea to lend money to coworkers Especially for small things like lunch, smoke etc In my experience these amount rarely returned without reminder and hard feelings. Always better to say no, or gift that amount if you want Update: Every down-voter - kick in 5$ for my lunch - i will return it later
    – Strader
    Jul 20 at 17:42
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – motosubatsu
    Jul 21 at 12:21
165

Ninety nine times out of a hundred, a random person who saw money being handed off to someone else wouldn't think anything of it. There could be a variety of reason why this money is exchanging hands and the observer would have no way of knowing what the context was unless they asked one of the individuals to which they would either be told "Bob wanted to borrow some cash for his lunch today and he said he would pay me back." or "Don't be nosey." It would be a big leap of imagination to think there was anything sinister going on with that money being given. If it was for a bribe it wouldn't happen where people could see it.

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    I'd say "99 times out of 100", with the caveat that's for small amounts of money (enough for lunch, public transport home or whatever). If it were for significantly more than that, I might think something of it - but also probably recognise it's none of my business. Jul 19 at 22:35
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    When in safe enough environment (hear where it can only be understood as a joke), I like to jokingly say "Thank you for that wonderful night" when returning money I borrowed in public :-)
    – Laurent S.
    Jul 20 at 12:15
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    99 out of 100 seems to understimate how common this is in my experience. I guess it depends on the country. But in all my years working I've borrowed and lent money multiple times without thinking anything about it (or just pay everything in one go when we're ordering something in and then get money from everyone). I never even thought about the idea that someone might consider this sinister (why would I do something sinister in front of multiple witnesses?!)
    – Voo
    Jul 20 at 13:41
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    Could also be something as innocent as parents selling awful chocolate for 'fundraising' candy companies that have infested the schools of their children. Happens everywhere all the time.
    – J...
    Jul 20 at 16:58
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    My workplace has a very active used goods market. It's quite common to give someone cash in exchange for a board game, or a space heater, or a water bottle, or what have you. Sometimes these exchanges are asynchronous. No big deal in a culture of default trust and respect. Jul 21 at 2:37
61

A co-worker friend who has left a wallet at home might ask to borrow money. It's someone you know, and it's no big deal. People seeing that would probably not notice. But in that case, they always pay it back, or buy lunch for you the next time. Keeping close tabs isn't important if there is a back and forth that tends to balance out.

You said that you've only been in this job a short time. There are people who are simply moochers - they will ask for money from whoever, and they may or may not pay it back. If they are like that, they might ask you because you are new, and don't know yet to say no.

As pointed out in the comments, if it's a small amount and you have it, it might be ok to lend it, but never lend anything (to co-workers or anyone else) that you can't afford to never get back. And never lend anything if you're going to have hard feelings towards someone who doesn't pay it back. Because of those two points, it's often better to not lend to co-workers at all. Unless, of course, it's that first case, where it is a known friend who just left a wallet at home.

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    If it's enough for a typical/modest workday lunch, I'd be inclined to lend the first time. If they don't pay it back, it hasn't cost a lot and I know I can't trust them in bigger things. Personally I keep enough cash stashed in work for a few lunches, small leaving gifts, train home etc. but when I have borrowed from a colleague I've always made a point of going to them first thing the next day to repay
    – Chris H
    Jul 20 at 11:10
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    Somebody can "forget their wallet" about once before I start to look at them strangely. Since I certainly have left my own wallet next to the dog's bowl on the kitchen counter myself.
    – Donald
    Jul 20 at 18:11
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    @Donald certainly I'd expect a decent effort to remember it and repay before asking again, but some people are disorganised enough to forget things frequently (wallet, work keys/security pass)
    – Chris H
    Jul 21 at 9:03
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If it's from friends (people with good working relationships who pay you back) and the amount is something you can give without repercussions for you, then it's OK (in the Czech Republic).

Also: If you don't want to lend them money, then politely say no. You don't have to explain yourself and if pressed can either say some prepared white lie or tell them the truth - that you don't feel comfortable lending money to anyone. It is not about them, it is about lending money.

In European Union (and the Czech Republic especially) we live in an increasingly cash-less society.

I have not needed cash (aside from lunches with colleagues in some interesting hole-in-the-wall or ethnic-cuisine type of places that don't take cards) for about two years now, and as such have stopped regularly checking how much cash I have on me.

That has led to me occasionally asking (and sometimes being asked) to borrow cash to pay for lunch from my colleagues since I didn't have enough cash in my wallet.

I would like to add that I haven't just randomly asked "some random colleague" for money, but always asked my teammates and friends, and usually just paid them back by transferring money to their bank account.

(Possible immediately using instantaneous free money transfers from my bank account to theirs. They just generated a QR code with their payment information and the optional amount, I scanned it and sent it.)

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    You shouldn't lie to them. There is generally no "white lie" in this case. Just say no and either tell them the truth or don't tell them at all. You compromise on your own personal honesty/trustworthiness otherwise. Jul 21 at 19:28
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    @Panzercrisis - that's a very definitive stance to take; sometimes little white lies are the oil that lubricates the machinery of social life. Have you never, for example, told your SO that they look great in a less-than-flattering outfit? Making the answer to a question about borrowing money too honest can be quite a blow to the receiving party: "I can't lend you the money, Adam - you're OK to work with but financially I trust you about as far as I could spit a rat" is unlikely to make any requests from you for information or help in the workplace received favourably.
    – Spratty
    Jul 22 at 11:50
  • @Spratty I'd rather tell someone like that they look like a tramp! (Joking) White lies exist, and things like cultural context exist. But one thing affecting the situation with the money though is that it would not only be a very literal lie, but it also doesn't inherently harm the other party to not lie to them - it only hurts you, if anyone. At that point, you're not protecting anyone but yourself, so it's not a white lie. (The other party can be super, extremely sensitive, but you don't have to be rude to them, and as long as you're polite, they'll just need a thicker skin in that case.) Jul 22 at 15:13
11

Where I work this wouldn't be an issue.

People loan other money for small things like lunch, no problem. The employees where I work are actually trustworthy.

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I concur with most answers that there is nothing wrong or suspicious in lending/borrowing a small amount of money in the office. In most cultures I'm familiar with. It just can range from "uncommon" to "ubiquitous" in different places.

So I'll address the "with audience" part, which hasn't been covered. If anything, making the transaction open and public makes it less suspicious and risky. There are witnesses. If I were in such a situation (I was, in fact, on several occasions), I would most likely "ask the audience" rather than anyone privately: "Hey, who could lend me $10 for lunch, I forgot my wallet? I'll return tomorrow!"

Being on the other side, you have an option to ask the person publicly to return the money (should they fail to do so), and at worst, you are buying the knowledge whom not to trust for everyone.

5

I don't think other people will think anything when they see you handing money over because people use cash to place bets or in the U.S. we have this thing where school kids sell things to support their school. The parents will offer those things for sell at work sometimes. Stuff like holiday candy for example.

I've known several types of people who always try to borrow money: 1.) Drug addicts (could be beer and not necessarily hardcore drugs). 2.) People who just are living outside of their means and trying to catch up. 3.) People who pretend not to have something so they can get "free" money from others. These people don't intend to pay anything back.

One guy kept borrowing small amounts of money every day. I guess I was subconsciously fed up with it because I slapped the quarter ($0.25) he asked for in his hand so hard that he never asked again.

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    I think trying to list reasons why people borrow money is a bad idea. In addition, I don't think game addicts for example are better than drug addicts on that. Also beer (i.e. alcohol) may be socially accepted, but is technically more hardcore than many less accepted, or commonly called "hard" drugs. Finally, I don't think this is actually answers the question...
    – Laurent S.
    Jul 20 at 12:26
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    The first thing I thought when I read "drug addicts" was "like the people who need the money to buy a coffee"
    – Erik
    Jul 20 at 13:14
  • @LaurentS. OP asked if it's normal so I gave a bunch of cases where it's been normal in my experience. Not a list of all the possible reasons somebody will borrow money. I didn't say one addict is better than another. I guess that I could say that the addicts who don't pester me for money are better than the ones who do.
    – HenryM
    Jul 21 at 16:44
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Your post strikes me as odd for three reasons:

  1. You "find it unusual that someone with a family at home wouldn't be able to pay their own lunch". That is, you assume they don't have sufficient funds to afford lunch. That thought would never occur to me here in Germany or in the U.S. for a colleague; the only people who cannot afford lunch are also homeless.

  2. You wonder whether "this [is] a trick". I would never assume that from a colleague unless it's April first or there are prior weird experiences with that specific person, which you don't report.

  3. You wonder whether handing them money "can be interpreted as bribery or fraud". That thought would also never occur to me in an office setting when I'd see a cash transfer. We are all colleagues who are friendly with each other. There is no need nor opportunity to bribe anybody.

To me it is astonishing that you are so suspicious (2.), and consequently assume that other people may be suspicious as well (3.). Is that common among Romanians? Is that perhaps the after-effect of a pathological dictator who employed a vast and powerful secret police?

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  • I've since left that job. I was never friends with that person as they had a weird attitude in general (not just towards me). In my opinion, when you have to work with a very weird person, you try to stay away from them any way you can, including not lending them any non-zero amount of money for any reason in any circumstance ; You went a bit too far with the last part.
    – user126159
    Jul 22 at 14:05
  • @wsdookadr It could perhaps have been phrased or put more delicately. I don't mean to be disrespectful or anything. Instead I am genuinely curious because your concerns seemed very foreign to me (I think that much is clear ;-) ). Do you have any experience from travel or work with other Europeans? Do you feel that Romanians are generally less trusting? I do think the Ceaușescu experience was fairly unique among the European countries, and pretty traumatic. Jul 22 at 14:43
  • Yes I have worked in different places. About your question regarding trust, I've had a look online and found this survey, it does seem like the country I live in has low scores regarding trust compared to others.
    – user126159
    Jul 22 at 14:59
  • @wsdookadr Wow, amazing what you can find online. The charts are a bit contradictory though: The percentage of people who think that "most people can be trusted" (first line chart) is for Romania 7% and for Germany 40%. If you use a scale question they are fairly similar though. Jul 22 at 15:34
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    @Peter-ReinstateMonica No, this has nothing to do with Romania. The OP's view on the issue is a (far) outlier in Romania as well.
    – Szabolcs
    Jul 23 at 7:25
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If a bystander is so intrigued instead of assumptions they should ask the loaner "Hey can I ask you something personal?" If "Yes" - "I noticed you loaned person money, do you do this often?" If "No" - Move on and rid yourself of assumptions until otherwise fruitful.

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For me in academia I would not hesitate. I myself tend to forget my wallet in the office all the time. Also, the fact that two people asked indicate that it is no big thing. Why they would not ask you to cover for your lunch? Maybe it means that they have to organize to meet you at the cafeteria check-out. Also it is much easier to remember and pay back twenty bucks than it is to pay $12.49.

In general, though the following holds:

  1. I know my coworkers. Could be the new guy, but if you tell me the name in two months I would remember precisely who you are talking about.
  2. It is not big money. Nothing that would really hurt me if lost. Nothing I would expect somebody to have bad intentions about; and if they do completely worth knowing their character.
  3. I do trust my colleagues.

About the bribery: This may depend on the culture. Some countries consider it pretty normal to bribe. Some, many western ones in fact, would take it pretty badly if caught. Do you think you could bribe people around the office for a few bucks?

Ask yourself generally, how much you could trust your coworkers. If you leave 50 bucks lying on your office table for a few days, what are the chances that they 'disappear'?

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  • Next time I work an office job I'm seriously considering finding some trashy boring clothes, possibly 2nd hand, barely compliant with dress code. Maybe that can fix things.
    – user126159
    Jul 23 at 8:48

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