Sunday, November 04, 2012

Many honest returns

The neighborhood in which my wife and I live has curbside recycling. Every Friday morning, recyclables are picked up.

We set aside any bottles or cans that can get a nickel back for each return because every several weeks our two grandsons help pile them into the car and then take them to a store that has a recycling machine that eats the bottles and cans and issues a receipt that can be turned in for cash at the store's register.

Our practice is to let our grandsons split whatever money the haul yields. If the amount adds up to anything with an extra nickel, rather than attempt to split it into 2 1/2 cents each, I keep the nickel. The cashiers have gotten used to our request that they split the amount evenly between the boys and give me the extra nickel if there happens to be one.

On our most recent trip, a couple of large family gatherings had preceded the returns, so the amount added up to a healthy $12.15. Each boy happily received $6.05, and the cashier handed me the extra coin. The boys headed out to the car with me behind them.

As soon as I left the store, however, I looked at the coin and noticed that the cashier had mistakenly given me a quarter rather than a nickel. The boys had already settled into the car, but I shouted out to them that I needed to go back inside for a second.

The cashier who was busy with another customer saw me walk back in and asked if everything was OK. I told her about the mistake and we made an exchange for the right coinage.

As I slid into the driver's seat, my youngest grandson, Lucas, asked from the backseat, "What were you doing, Papa?" I told him that the cashier had given me a quarter instead of the nickel I was owed and that I had gone in to return it.

"Why did you do that?" he asked.

"Because it wasn't my money," I responded.

We talked some more and I explained again that the money wasn't mine and it didn't matter to me if it was 20 cents or $20. The owner of the store shouldn't be shortchanged any more than I would be. Plus, when the cashier cashed out at the end of the day, she would be expected to have her cash drawer balance. The right thing in such situations when someone makes a mistake and gives you more than you're due is to make things right.

I expected some great lesson would immediately resonate with Lucas, who is 11, that by setting an example he would forever know to try to do what's right, in big matters as well as small. But, as we were finishing up talking, he said, "Only you would have taken the time to do that."

I'm hopeful that's not right and that others would have done the same. But I can rest assured that at least one other person besides me knows why it's important to do what's right even when the stakes seem small. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Scott Manas, Miami, FL said...

Yes, it is the cashier who is responsible if the numbers aren't balanced. That 20 cents would have come out of his or her paycheck.

I have an even more extreme example. Recently on a trip to the bank, I saw a rather shady looking character walking out as I was walking in. I grew suspicious, so I stopped to push my car lock button once again just so he would hear the sound of the alarm being set.

Two minutes later, that same gentleman walked back into the bank and informed the teller that in the confusion over the specificity of the bills he had requested, that teller had accidentally given him an extra $1,000.

The bank manager thanked the customer and said, "You just saved his job." It just goes to show you, one cannot judge a book by its cover.

Phil Clutts, Harrisburg, NC said...


You could have told the boys about the old “Honest Abe” story - Or, you could have made more of a production about it by showing them this, which mentions “The Right Thing” a lot at the beginning: Then they could plagiarize from it for some future ethics or philosophy class.
Just kidding, of course. My wife and I would have done the same thing you did, and I like to think our adult children would have done so also - or at the least returned the money on their next visit to the store.
Sorry I couldn't hyperlink the sites.

Corinne Griswold said...

I was just switched to teaching 8th grade US History from math. We were discussing colonists who refused to join the Patriot's cause in fighting during the revolution. I explained the Quakers 's decision to just help in non combative roles by showing my students the 'turn the other cheek' quote
from the Bible. The boys especially were incredulous. 'Somebody hits me, I'm hitting them back.' So that led to a long discussion of Martin Luther King, appeals to majority rule, even Malala. I hope something stuck.

Suzanne Eckhardt said...

Weather or not the clerk would have been responsible or punished depends on the store. At Walmart, for example, everyone shares money drawers so it's nearly impossible to tell who would be responsible for the 20-cent shortage. Also, most large stores really don't care about such a small amount because the time it takes to trace it wastes more money than the actual shortage. Still, I agree that correcting the error is the right thing to do. And an important lesson for children.

Anonymous said...

I have an example also. I run a small used auto parts business where the cash register is my wallet. A hispanic gentleman came in and purchased a cheap used tire. He paid me cash and I gave him change. When he got to his car with the tire, he turned around and walked back. He returned a 100 dollar bill which I had given in change as a ten.
In this case, I would most probably have never discoved the error and certainly, even if I did, never tied it to him.
So this person could have had a free 90 dollars and, quite obviously because he had bought a $5 tire, was far from wealthy.
There are honest people in the world and they get less credit than deserved.
One feels good about the world after something like that.


Anonymous said...

Helloooooo!! I've heard of unimportant controversies but this one takes the cake. If the father had the honesty to report the mistake, good for him, but I hardly think this matters for the amount of money involved. No wonder this country is so mixed up if people worry over unimportant things like this!

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Anonymous said...

I think it is interesting that your grandson's value was the time you took to return it. It sounds like he understood the error should be corrected. Did he also understand that correcting mistakes, both large and small, takes time?

"Everyone is doing it" is no basis for doing it yourself

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