Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sweeping others' mistakes under the rug

Computers make mistakes. Let me rephrase that a bit: If incorrect information is put into a computer by a human being, then that computer is likely to make a mistake in computing whatever it is supposed to be computing. Garbage in, garbage out, goes the saying.

It's a customer's responsibility to point out an error at the cash register if a product is clearly scanned incorrectly. Some stores, like a supermarket we wrote about recently, have a policy of honoring an incorrectly scanned price if it results from their mistake. But other times, it's the customer's responsibility to fork over the amount he or she had intended to pay but that rang up cheaper.

Just as you wouldn't believe it to be OK to keep $1,000 from a bank's ATM when your intent was to get $100 and the withdrawal record only shows $100, you shouldn't think it's OK to keep a $129.95 waffle maker if you end up being charged for a $9.95 oven mitt at the cash register and the receipt only shows $9.95.

With some degree of pleasure, a neighbor told me that he had been undercharged for a small rug recently at a discount store when it scanned as a cheaper product. My neighbor knows what I write for a living and he prefaced his story by telling me he had "an ethical thing" happen recently.

Before I could respond that I thought he should have pointed out the discrepancy to the clerk at the cash register, though, he continued with his story -- and explained that because the rug is for a high-traffic area, he was concerned it would wear out quickly. Fearing that the store might stop carrying this rug that fit perfectly in the spot he needed to cover, and also wanting to seize the opportunity to get a deal if the rugs remained incorrectly priced, he returned to the store. He picked out three more rugs and brought then to the checkout, where the clerk proceeded to ring up his order.

That's when my neighbor noticed that the same incorrect price showed up again on the register. What he didn't notice until he was out the door and heading to his car was that the clerk had charged him for one rug, not three.

He thought about returning to report the mistake, but decided not to, figuring that if the store was so careless as to not get its prices right and a clerk so inattentive that he didn't charge for all items, the fault was not his but theirs.

He's right, of course. It was their fault. If the store wants to stay in business for the long run, it would be wise to have its employees do a better job of charging its customers the right amount.

But my neighbor was wrong not to point out the incorrect scan and uncharged-for rugs -- not because the clerk might get in trouble and not because the store might go out of business if enough customers take advantage of such mistakes, but because that would have been the right thing to do.

Getting a deal is fine. Getting the deal when you know it's built on someone else's unintended mistake is not. 

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 

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

1 comment:

Phil Clutts said...

I absolutely agree with you, Jeffrey, but good luck with your neighborly relations if the guy reads (or hears about) your column.

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

Years ago, after I had left my job as a magazine editor and took a significant cut in pay to become an assistant professor at a liberal ...