Sunday, April 12, 2015
Being undercharged taught reader a lasting lesson
"I confess," a reader writes. "I am a miserable person."
The reader takes great pride in trying to do what's right. Quite frequently, he's found himself being undercharged at a store or restaurant.
"Mostly, I tell the people and they correct the bill," he writes. But, "before I get too high and mighty," he confesses that he hasn't always made the effort to set things straight. About 41 years ago, when he was "young and poor" and living in Denver, the reader spent quite a bit of time hiking and camping. Living on a shoestring budget, he tried to stretch every dollar.
He'd saved enough money to buy a propane backpacking stove that sold for $19.90, the kind you can still pick up for about $25 at most sporting goods stores or discount retailers. At the checkout counter, the cashier placed the decimal point in the wrong place and erroneously charged him only $1.99.
Eying the receipt, the reader, who was unemployed at the time, contemplated whether to tell the cashier he'd made a mistake. He decided not to. "I was dishonest," he writes.
Granted, there are stores that might sell you an item at a lower price if it's mislabeled or scans wrong. But my reader's experience was in the days before scanners were in wide use. (The first item scanned at a checkout is reported to have been a pack of chewing gum at a grocery store in Ohio in 1974, the same year as the reader's propane stove purchase.)
That he didn't pay the correct amount has always nagged at the reader.
Last fall, he found himself with four friends at a restaurant in New York City. When the bill arrived, he discovered they hadn't been charged for a round of drinks. Without hesitation, he told his friends they needed to let the waiter know, and they did.
It wasn't the experience 41 years ago that taught the reader that correcting someone who undercharges you is the right thing to do, although it might have heightened his determination to set things right in similar situations. He knew as soon as he saw the receipt for the propane stove that he should have drawn attention to the error. The fact that he was nearly broke shouldn't have made a difference. He did, after all, go into the store expecting to pay $19.90.
Does this make the reader a miserable person? No.
We all make errors of judgment, and the reader recognizes that he made one 31 years ago. Ever since then, he's tried his best to do the right thing when faced with similar situations, as well as predicaments that could have had far more dire results.
I've written before that what should really drive us is to understand that in making choices, our actions define us. Only then can we consistently strive to do the right thing.
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.
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