Sunday, June 16, 2013

Finders not always keepers

Should you expect to be thanked when you do the right thing? And if you know someone has done the right thing when it directly relates to you, should you make sure to thank them?

A secretary who works in the main office of a large high school in the Midwest is the official tender of the high school's lost and found.

"I can't tell you how many students bring in cash they find in halls, doorways and parking lots," she writes. "Last school year, I was given over $200 by students who found cash on school grounds and wanted to do the right thing. Almost none of them asked if they could claim the found cash if no one asked for it."

The school secretary believes the finders were motivated by empathy, namely, "How would I feel if I lost this amount of cash?"

Some of the money gets returned, but some is loaned out to hungry students who have forgotten lunch money. They sign IOUs and most of them, the secretary reports, repay the loan within a few days. Some of the unclaimed money is used for an annual gift drive to buy holiday gifts for homeless children in the school district.

Students who turn in the found money don't do it for the thanks or a reward, the secretary says, but because they've built a culture at the school where they know it's the right thing to do.

Still, when someone's money is returned and he knows who returned it, what's the proper course of action?

Another reader from the Midwest dropped his wife off at the movie theater. He then handed her money to buy tickets from the bank envelope he was still carrying from the day before when he had made a withdrawal. Instead of putting the money back into his pants pocket, he put it in the chest pocket of his coat. The next day, when he went to get the money to go buy groceries, he realized it was gone.

Figuring it must have fallen out of his coat's chest pocket at the movie theater, he stopped by to ask if anyone had found the envelope. He told the manager what movie they had seen and that there had been approximately $450 in the envelope.

The manager checked and, sure enough, a young man had found the money and turned it in.

"He could have rejoiced at finding the money, but he turned it in," the reader writes. He left a $20 reward for the young man. "I could not imagine not thanking him in some way."

The young man may not have expected anything in return for doing the right thing. But the reader takes joy that the young man was not "so jaded or self-centered that he couldn't imagine what it might have been like to lose something valuable himself."

The students at the high school regularly do the right thing by turning in what is not theirs in hopes it will find its rightful owner. So did the young man at the theater. And the gentleman who had his lost $450 returned also did the right thing by graciously thanking the young man. They each behaved in a manner that suggests there is some agreement on the right thing to do, even when you don't have to do it. 

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.


Anonymous said...

This story is too good to believe, the honesty of these examples is enough to give one a certain feeling of faith in humanity. Thanks, Jeffrey, for restoring my feeling that there is hope for our country in the guise of people who performed with honesty, above and beyond.

Charie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Anonymous said...

What one expects from doing the right thing and the act of doing the right thing are separate subjects, and it can be a little tricky at times. I was taught to say thanks for gifts and favors extended to me by others. I don't give a gift "conditionally" . . but I DO admit to expecting an acknowledgement of some sort. If I don't get it, I ponder the question of why I didn't. I didn't think about this when I gave the gift, but did so after the fact. If, while passing a person in a doorway, we accidentally bump each other, it usually results in both of us offering a "pardon me" - but if the other person doesn't say anything, it bothers me. My point is that the absence of a small item of anticipated closure can irritate. One person did the right thing, but the other one didn't!

Joe Read
Anaheim, CA

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