Blog for weekly ethics column by Jeffrey L. Seglin distributed by Tribune Media. For information about carrying The Right Thing in your print or online publication, contact information is available at http://www.tmsfeatures.com/contact/ or a e-mail a Tribune Media sales representative at email@example.com. Send your ethical questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @jseglin or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/seglin
What would you do? It's a common question used to follow
any number of theoretical circumstances in which you might find yourself.
If you knew an employee you manage was going to be laid
off in a couple of weeks and she came to you asking for advice on putting a
down payment on a house, would you tell her that job was soon to be gone even
though the company asked you not to disclose the information? If an ATM spit
out twice the money you asked for and there's no record of that excess, would
you return the money?
For a reader in the Ohio, the errant ATM disbursement is
no theoretical exercise. A few years ago, at an ATM near his office, he made a
deposit and requested $20 cash back. To his surprise, two 20-dollar bills came
out along with a printed receipt that showed the correct deposit but a cash
withdrawal of only $20.
He quickly called the branch of the bank (a large
national bank) nearest to his office and asked to speak with a service
representative. "When I explained what happened and tried to report the
cash overpayment, their reply was simply astonishing."
The service rep told him that the branch he called had
nothing to do with the ATM from which he withdrew his cash. He told him he
should call another branch in Chicago. The service rep refused to call on my
Of course, when he called Chicago, the service rep there
told him to call his local branch. Explaining that he had tried this, the
service rep in Chicago promised to correct his account.
In retrospect, he believes he let his bank, with which he
has had an account for more than 30 years, off too easy.
When bank customers make mistakes, he reasons, say,
overdrawing their accounts by as little as one dollar, his bank (and others)
charges a substantial overdraft fee. If banks charge outrageous error fees, he
believes it's only fair that when banks make a mistake, they should also be
responsible for compensating those customers.
"More than 20 minutes of my life was wasted,
undivided attention spent on the phone, begging (the bank) employees to correct
the exasperating ATM mistake," he writes.
He doesn't seriously expect banks to ever compensate
their inconvenienced customers, but, he asks "would it be unethical for
suffering customers to ask bungling banks for similar idiot charges?"
There would be nothing ethically wrong with asking the
bank to compensate him for his time straightening out an error it made and
seemed reluctant to try to correct when a longstanding customer tried to make
things right. But then, the bank has no ethical obligation to honor such a
But the bank is obligated to treat its customers with
respect and to honor its stated commitment to customer service. Passing off a
customer who wants to set accounts right reflects poorly on the bank and its
practices. My reader did the right thing by trying to return the cash he knew
was not his. The bank should have done the right thing by empowering its
representatives to be responsive to its customer rather than sending him on a
wild chase to figure out how to return the cash.
And it wouldn't have killed
the bank to thank my reader for his honesty, something it never bothered to do.