Sunday, September 26, 2010


When I was about 12 years old, my mother used to do her grocery shopping at a supermarket next to a discount department store in Parsippany, N.J. The department store had an area with pinball machines. While my mother shopped, I’d use the nickels I saved to play as much pinball as I could.

On one occasion, I noticed that one of the pinball machines had free games indicated on its screen. I walked over to play the games and more and more free games registered, even though I hadn’t deposited any money and, near as I could tell, hadn’t scored high enough to win any free games. After about 20 minutes of playing, the guy who took care of the machines came over and told me that the pinball machine was out of order and he needed to service it.

“Did you put any money in that machine?” he asked.

Flustered — and 12 years old — I responded, “Yes.”

I followed his eyes as he looked at the coin slots. All of them were taped over with black electrical tape to keep people from depositing money. I was caught in a lie. I left, partly embarrassed and partly convinced he would ask me to pay for all of the free games I’d played.

The lesson that’s stuck with me since that day is that lying about the small stuff is wrong. If it’s not enough to know that it’s wrong to deceive someone, then rest assured that you never know when a little bit of electrical tape will trip you up.

On the Friday before Labor Day, at just about 6 in the morning, Bryan Drost, a reader who lives near Cleveland, found himself in a situation where he, too, was receiving something for less than he should have paid.

He had stopped at the gas station he frequently visits to fill up. The electronic sign in front of the station indicated that gas was $2.79 a gallon. While he was about to press the fuel-choice button, he noticed that the price at the pump was set to $2.57, the price from the day before.

“Was I obligated to let the management know that the prices were different?” Drost asks. “Would it have made any difference if there was a long line inside and I was late for work?”

The pricing mistake was the service station’s fault, so Drost could have left without saying a word. Proclaiming ignorance would have been a viable response had someone confronted him. (No electrical tape was marring his ability to pay for the gas he pumped.)

But the right thing to do was to let someone know that there was a mistake. If the service station attendant on duty was smart, he’d have thanked Drost but let him pay the lower price. Making the effort is the right thing to do, regardless of whether there’s a line.

And indeed Drost did venture into the small convenience store at the gas station to try to alert management to the price differential, but he couldn’t find anyone.

“It was pretty early in the morning,” he says, “and I’m guessing they only had one person who was working on something else.”

Though unsuccessful, Drost did the right thing by making a concerted effort to set the station right.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

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Patricia Clason said...

I know that I appreciate when someone points out a mistake, especially one that will cause a loss in income or money out of my pocket.

I recall however an incident online when an airline erroneously posted $2 airfares and then had to honor them.

I recently encountered a hotel posting the cost of a 2 bedroom suite as $0. I reserved the room at that rate and got a receipt saying the room cost was $0. It's been two months and no one has contacted me about the error. I expect an interesting conversation when I check-in!! I will let you know the outcome.
I of course am willing to pay for my room, I just don't know how much it will actually cost once I get there.

And I will admit that there are days I feel so discouraged by the lack of attention by many businesses that I have thought of such a situation as a lesson for them, an inexpensive consultation from the world-at-large, to wake them up to pay attention to what they are doing.

If it were my business, I would offer to honor the error. I may, under some circumstances, ask for the compassion of the customer if my error would result in financial duress for my business and negotiation to a reasonable settlement. I would be grateful for the opportunity to learn and the reminder to pay attention.

Anonymous said...

Character is what you do when no one is looking. If you do the honest and honorable thing when there is no chance you will get caught, you are a person of character. To know what is right and choose to do wrong is to commit a moral wrong. Many of us call this "sin". As Dr. Laura Schlesinger always says, "Now go and do the right thing!"

Anonymous said...

Excellent submit. Thank you for sharing with us