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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.
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