Sunday, February 03, 2013

An expensive drinking lesson

"What price honesty?" asks a reader, who describes himself as a senior citizen from North Carolina.

Recently, he was asked by his son and grandson to join them on a trip to a fast-food franchise.

"I ordered a chicken sandwich and water," he says. The water button on the self-serve fountain-drink dispenser was quite small and located on top of the lemonade option. "Somehow I filled up my cup with lemonade that I didn't want."

He also hadn't paid for it, so he went back to the ordering station to tell an employee there about his mistake.

"How much do I owe you?" he asked her.

"$1.70," she replied.

"That much?" the reader asked.

"Yes," she responded.

He gave her the money and that was that, he writes. No thanks, no other options, no comments on being honest since she never would have known he filled his cup with lemonade rather than water if he hadn't told her.

"Now, I feel more stupid than honest," he writes, asking if he did the right thing.

Given that the fast-food franchise lets customers fill their own cups, it would have been simple for the reader to simply empty his cup of mistakenly poured lemonade, rinse the cup out, and then fill it with water. If there was no sink or receptacle in which to drain the lemonade, he could have simply walked outside to pour it out, and then returned to fill the cup with water.

While his honesty was noble, there also would have been nothing wrong with him spilling out the lemonade and simply refilling his cup.

He went above and beyond in returning to the ordering station to tell the employee of his mistake. The right thing would have been for the employee to check with a manager before insisting that the customer pay for what was clearly an honest mistake. He wasn't requesting a new cup, so it wasn't a matter of the employee worrying that the cup count might be off when they took inventory.

My reader also would have done well to ask to speak with the manager if the employee didn't offer to check on her own.

Still, the reader's impulses were good in wanting to be honest about his mistake. That he was penalized for coming clean sends a terrible message to an honest customer. It suggests that simply concealing mistakes in your favor could be the way to go since doing otherwise might cost you. It falls dangerously close to the cynical wisecrack that "no good deed goes unpunished."

But my reader takes no such message from his experience. He did the right thing by wanting to be honest and concedes that he knows what he did was right and that the employee was wrong in not forgiving the mistake.

Ultimately, such bad judgment on an employee's part hurts the business, something my reader knows.

"Whether or not I did the right thing," he writes, "I won't be going back to that franchise again." 

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) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Lian said...

All of this said, the employee is almost surely making a very low wage and likely one that she can't do without. She may be afraid of getting fired if she makes even a small mistake at the cost of her employer. So I would personally hesitate to blame her even though I agree it was silly for the letter writer to be asked to pay for the drink. If the manager wants to put customer service first, they should make it clear to their employees that they'll be praised, not punished, for giving customers the benefit of the doubt.

Anonymous said...

The guy did the right thing and happened to encounter today's example of the education of today's workers. He knows he did the right thing and it only cost him a small amount for being honest. The other comment correctly added the situation faced by today's workers. You can't win!

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

William Jacobson said...

You reader admits that -he- made the mistake in pouring the wrong drink and that he made the -choice- to return to the register, presumedly to pay for the drink, rather than pour the drink out. Why then would he be taken aback that he wad then charged the going price for that drink? He made a mistake and did the right thing and corrected it.

Doing right is its own reward and requires no thanks, options or comments from others. If he was correcting his mistake in order to be thanked, he was pursuing the wrong aims.

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Anonymous said...

I am the honest senior citizen in question. I ordered water instead of lemonade because I didn't want to spend money for calories I didn't need. I very rarely eat out - especially at fast food places - so I was taken aback that the drink cost $1.70, not by being charged for it. I fully expected to pay.
I agree that virtue is its own reward, but a smile and thanks from the cashier would have been well-received nonetheless. Because this was an unexpected stop in a rush to get somewhere else with five other family members, I didn't want to take such a minor issue up with management.
I'd like to add that, to me, pouring the lemonade down the drain would have been a form of stealing - not one to my benefit, but a loss to the restaurant nevertheless.

Carl White said...

I can not even begin to imagine being this honest. It makes you realize how many things most of us rationalize very quickly and without thinking twice about it in the course of a single day.
Regardless, its nice to hear a story like this, good work honest senior citizen.