Sunday, July 31, 2011

Setting things right when things go your way

It doesn't take much to figure out that when a business overcharges you or doesn't get you the right products you ordered that the right thing is to make the business set things straight. But what about when a company errs in your favor?

Let me tell you about D.G., a reader from Connecticut. Some time ago, D.G. wrote me to let me know how important it was not only to correct businesses when they overcharge a customer, but also to let those companies know when they have mistakenly given you "something extra or not deserved."

In such instances, D.G. writes: "You have an obligation and duty to try to make things right."

D.G. isn't just talking a good game.

While he says that he writes "many letters complaining about poor service," he is also quick to write a letter when he has received something by mistake or that he does not deserve.

He leaves it up to the recipients of his letters to decide what to do once he has sent off his correction.

After D.G. had rented a car in Colorado for three days, for example, he received a bill that only charged him for two days. A letter went off to the rental car company informing it of the mistake. He has not heard back from the company.

When he used accumulated frequent flier miles to take a free trip, D.G. received mileage credit for that free trip he shouldn't have. "I wrote and pointed this out, but it was never corrected," he writes. In the same letter, D.G. had thanked the airline for getting him to his destination during a major snowstorm. He wonders if the airline receives so few letters of thanks that it just let him keep the miles.

Several years ago, when D.G. was in Japan, he ran up a hotel bill of roughly $2,000. Because the bill was delayed for more than three months, the total shot up to $2,300 because of currency rate changes. He refused to pay the extra $300 and disputed the bill for almost nine months, arguing that had the hotel processed his bill in a more timely fashion he would not have been assessed the extra charge. Eventually, the hotel sent him a letter telling him it planned to write off the entire $2,300 as a loss.

"I wrote back and sent a check for the $2,000 I felt I owed," writes D.G. "It would have been completely unethical to do otherwise."

D.G. wasn't trying to get out of paying his bill. He merely wanted to be charged fairly. When the hotel caved on its demands, D.G. wanted no part of it. He owed what he owed, he figured, and he was obligated to pay up.

"To be truly ethical," writes D.G., "I believe people have an obligation to correct mistakes that fall to their favor or against them."

D.G. is right. In each instance, he did the right thing by alerting companies when they made a mistake in his favor. How those companies choose to respond is up to them, but it would be good practice to let customers like D.G. know how much they appreciate their honesty.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing:Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Bill Jacobson said...

Jeffrey, I applaud DG's ethical stance but I would suggest it more tactful to do his good deeds in secret, not splashed across the New York Times :) Yes we are quick to correct those that short us, let us be just as quick to rectify those that mistakenly overpay us.

Bill Jacobson
Cypress, CA

Phil Clutts said...

DG is on the right track, but it seems to me that he should have sent the hotel the $2000 early-on and then disputed the $300. It might have saved him and them time and aggravation.

Phil Clutts
Harrisburg, NC