Sunday, October 16, 2011

Thankless returns

Occasionally, I run across someone's lost wallet.

My response has always been to do what I could to find out the name of the wallet's owner and then return it. The response from the rightful owner has ranged from appearing chagrined to have to meet me at a nearby subway station (where I'd found the wallet) to recoup her rightful belongings, to a gentleman who sent my family a gift certificate to a buffet at a Chinese restaurant after he received his wallet in the mail.

Does how people respond dictate whether we should do the right thing? Should it?

Things had not been going particularly well for a reader from Southern California. She had been unemployed for quite a while. Finances were tight and she'd overdrawn her checking account by $196.

As she pulled her car into the bank's parking lot, she found a space that was directly adjacent to the ATM. There, scattered in the space right next to her car were 10 $20 bills. The $200 could not have come at a better time, she figured, so she tucked them in her pocketbook and drove home.

The next day, however, she grew concerned for the person who might have lost the money. She went to the bank and asked its manager if someone had reported any money missing.

"Luckily," she writes, "they had gotten a call." The customer had described exactly how much and where the money had been lost.

At the manager's request, my reader left her name and number with the bank. With her permission, the manager was going to forward the money to the customer along with a note containing the name and number of the woman who had found it and returned it to the bank.

"I didn't return the money expecting anything," my reader writes. "But a thank you would have been nice. The woman never even called to say 'thank you.'"

My reader grew angry over the lack of an acknowledgment for her good deed.

"Especially given my own financial dire straits," she writes, "I was seriously regretting my decision to give the money back."

Returning found cash can be trickier than returning a lost wallet, since cash rarely has any identifying characteristics on it. Still, my reader went out of her way to see if she could get it to its right owner.

Sure, she could have used the cash herself and no one would have been the wiser. But she knew that the money's owner might be agonizing over the loss. Clearly, the owner was concerned and notified the bank.

My reader did the right thing by trying to find the rightful owner of the money. The owner was wrong not to express her thanks.

A small courtesy to acknowledge an act of kindness would have gone a long way toward reaffirming my reader's faith in people's goodness. She can rest easy knowing that her own act is a reflection of the quality of her character.

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...


Your reader did the right thing regardless of whether her act was recognized. Many jurisdictions have laws requiring finders of substantial sums to turn them in to the establishment where found or the police. Failing to do so can constitute theft. This was precisely the issue in the lost iPhone prototype case this last year where an Apple engineer lost a prototype iPhone at a bar and the finder rather than turn it in to the bar or the police pocketed it and sold it.

Our ethics are determined by what we do when no one is watching... Your reader did well.

Bill Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Anonymous said...

Everyone acts in their own best interests. Your reader had two choices: 'finders keepers, losers weepers': keep the money and be $200 better off temporarily but look at herself in the mirror and be dissatisfied with her choice permanently.

She made the right choice: she did the right thing and sought the rightful owner of the money. In doing so, she was true to her values and can be forever satisfied with making the right choice.

Amazing that the person who lost the money did not have the grace to say thank you. Let's hope that one day she regrets having shown no grace, no manners.......and resolves to act in future in a more civilized manner.

The reader who returned the money showed grace and character. She did The Right Thing.

Anonymous said...

Pretty obvious. She did the moral thing abd the owner was a thoughtless jerk.
Her financial situation make it a better story but have nothing to do with rightness.
I doubt too many people will defend the owner but we'll see.
Alan O