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Last year, when gold prices reached an all-time high, a
number of people scrambled through old jewelry boxes to see if they had any
underused gold lying around that they could sell. At more than $1,800 an ounce,
even those who weren't strapped for cash recognized a unique opportunity to do
some profitable house cleaning.
A reader from North Carolina seized the moment. He hadn't
worn his college ring in decades, so he decided to take it to his local jeweler
to see how much it might fetch.
He was surprised to be offered $479, so he accepted a
check on the spot. His wife mentioned his good fortune to their adult daughter
who lives a few hours away.
"She was quite upset, tracked down the jeweler on
the phone, and managed to 'save' it," my reader reports. He picked his
ring up the next day, returned the check, and gave his daughter the ring the
next time he saw her.
"Our daughter is just more sentimental than I am and
wanted to have it to remember me by," he says. "She loves me."
A similar situation arose recently after he decided to
sell a couple of handwritten letters that had been addressed to him by a
well-known author to thank him for some information. Believing his letters
might get lost or damaged and would not be of interest to anyone down the line,
he ended up selling them to a dealer for $100.
He received "a lot of flak" from a relative who
told him he should have saved the letters for his grandchildren. "He
reasoned that they could be worth much more years from now and said that it was
'unimaginative' . . . and, in effect, selfish of me to sell the letters now,
especially since I don't need the money."
My reader says he has acquired a lot of things over the
years and doesn't want to be second-guessed on what he chooses to dispose of
before his next "and probably final" move. His children and grandchildren
will, he says, be rewarded with money and things of sentimental value after his
As he gets older, however, he wants to get rid of some
things that mean little to him. He also hopes to spare his children any
conflict over who gets what when the time comes.
"Should I have to consult with the parents of our
grandchildren on everything?" he asks. "Is it ethical to dispose of
your once-prized possessions when they might have real or sentimental value to
It's my reader's stuff and the right thing is for him to
keep whatever he wants and dispose of whatever he doesn't. He has no ethical
obligation to seek the permission of his kids, grandkids, or other relatives
about what he does with his stuff.
Knowing, however, that his daughter might be
sentimentally attached to some of his belongings, it would be thoughtful for
him to let her and his other children know when he's getting rid of something.
But such notification could be more of a courtesy than a negotiation.
Some family members may take issue with how he decides to
lighten his load. They're free to express their opinion. But ultimately, as
long as he is prepared to withstand some possible criticism, the decision about
what to keep and what to lose is his to make.
What would you do? It's a common question used to follow
any number of theoretical circumstances in which you might find yourself.
If you knew an employee you manage was going to be laid
off in a couple of weeks and she came to you asking for advice on putting a
down payment on a house, would you tell her that job was soon to be gone even
though the company asked you not to disclose the information? If an ATM spit
out twice the money you asked for and there's no record of that excess, would
you return the money?
For a reader in the Ohio, the errant ATM disbursement is
no theoretical exercise. A few years ago, at an ATM near his office, he made a
deposit and requested $20 cash back. To his surprise, two 20-dollar bills came
out along with a printed receipt that showed the correct deposit but a cash
withdrawal of only $20.
He quickly called the branch of the bank (a large
national bank) nearest to his office and asked to speak with a service
representative. "When I explained what happened and tried to report the
cash overpayment, their reply was simply astonishing."
The service rep told him that the branch he called had
nothing to do with the ATM from which he withdrew his cash. He told him he
should call another branch in Chicago. The service rep refused to call on my
Of course, when he called Chicago, the service rep there
told him to call his local branch. Explaining that he had tried this, the
service rep in Chicago promised to correct his account.
In retrospect, he believes he let his bank, with which he
has had an account for more than 30 years, off too easy.
When bank customers make mistakes, he reasons, say,
overdrawing their accounts by as little as one dollar, his bank (and others)
charges a substantial overdraft fee. If banks charge outrageous error fees, he
believes it's only fair that when banks make a mistake, they should also be
responsible for compensating those customers.
"More than 20 minutes of my life was wasted,
undivided attention spent on the phone, begging (the bank) employees to correct
the exasperating ATM mistake," he writes.
He doesn't seriously expect banks to ever compensate
their inconvenienced customers, but, he asks "would it be unethical for
suffering customers to ask bungling banks for similar idiot charges?"
There would be nothing ethically wrong with asking the
bank to compensate him for his time straightening out an error it made and
seemed reluctant to try to correct when a longstanding customer tried to make
things right. But then, the bank has no ethical obligation to honor such a
But the bank is obligated to treat its customers with
respect and to honor its stated commitment to customer service. Passing off a
customer who wants to set accounts right reflects poorly on the bank and its
practices. My reader did the right thing by trying to return the cash he knew
was not his. The bank should have done the right thing by empowering its
representatives to be responsive to its customer rather than sending him on a
wild chase to figure out how to return the cash.
And it wouldn't have killed
the bank to thank my reader for his honesty, something it never bothered to do.
A reader frequently visits a friend who lives in a
neighborhood that has many children playing in the area, although the friend
has no children herself.
The reader has grown concerned about the number of young
children, most looking to be 4-8 years old, wandering around the neighborhood
"They dart out into the street," my reader
reports, "ride their bikes in the street unsupervised, and play right at
the end of their driveways where it would be very easy for them to get
Complicating matters are the adults who walk their
children and dogs in the street. "There are perfectly good sidewalks on
both sides of the streets throughout the entire neighborhood, and yet they just
don't use them."
"How can you expect a small child to understand the
dangers of playing in the street when their parents make no effort to teach
them?" my reader asks.
All of this came to a head a few weeks ago, when my
reader reports she was driving to see her friend and was going four to five
miles under the posted speed limit. A group of parents who were gathered with
many small children in a neighbor's yard shouted, "Slow down!"
"The comment made me so angry I pulled over,"
she writes. She told them that it's inappropriate to shout things at cars,
especially since she was going slower than the speed limit.
Several adults leaned into the window and told her they
would call the police on her for driving so fast when there were so many
The reader told them she didn't want to argue with them
in front of their children. "Yeah, but you would be just fine hitting one
of them with your car," a neighbor suggested.
"I'd like to just let it go, but they aren't going
to," she says. "They have already purchased those yellow 'Slow: Kids
at play' men and they place them in the street."
She says she is now afraid that they will retaliate when
they see either her or her car. "I don't know what to do."
Parents certainly have a responsibility to supervise
their children to keep them out of harm's way. If children are truly in peril
because of negligent parents, then the parents should be held accountable.
It's not clear that that's the case here. Buying and
placing signs to urge cars to slow down suggest that the parents care about
their children's safety and want to send signals to drivers to take care. That
they walk in the streets with their children might not be optimal, but still,
they are accompanying their kids.
The fear of retaliation may be real, but the evidence
suggests the neighbors only approached the reader's car after she stopped to
confront them about shouting "Slow Down." It's not clear that
shouting this was all that threatening. Positioning plastic yellow men hardly seems
The right thing is certainly for the parents to monitor
their kids, but it's also right for my reader and others driving through any
neighborhoods with a heavy population of children to drive with caution
regardless of the posted speed limit. If someone shouts "Slow down,"
it might be good to consider it a sign of concern rather than a threat.
A couple of weeks ago, a reader from northern New Jersey
ordered a large bookcase from a major discount retailer. "I still love my
books and have not given in to a Kindle or Nook!" she writes. The bookcase
was on sale for "an excellent price" and the reader also received a
discount by using her store credit card for the purchase.
A couple of days after she placed her order, a huge,
heavy box arrived on her doorstep. "I was delighted to begin filling up
the bookcase," she writes.
Then, two days later, another huge, heavy box arrived.
She and her son dragged the box inside.
"It was another bookcase!" she writes. "I
immediately checked my account online to see if I had been charged twice, but a
charge for only one bookcase appeared."
Her dilemma, my reader figures, is: "Do I keep the
extra bookcase without reporting the store's error or should I return it?"
The reasons for not keeping it without reporting the
store's error include not feeling guilty every time she looks at the bookcase.
On the other hand, she feels this bookcase is a "drop in the bucket"
for a store as large as the one from which she purchased it. What's more, she
would need help to return it since it is so heavy. Even if the store offered to
pick it up, "that would require the inconvenience of someone being here
for the pickup."
"As you can see," she writes, "I am trying
to justify just keeping the 'free' bookcase, but I have that nagging feeling
that it would not be the right thing to do."
She says she has "this thing about karma," and
she doesn't want "to get a knot in my stomach every time I take a book off
one of the shelves," so she wants to do the right thing.
My reader faces a common conundrum. It wasn't her mistake
that led to the extra bookcase being sent, so why she wonders should she have
to return it. Still, she knows it doesn't feel right to just keep it and not
acknowledge the error.
She's right to want to acknowledge the error. Most
readers know it would be wrong not to notify a bank if its ATM gave out too
much money when you went for a withdrawal. But it doesn't always feel as clear
cut when a retail store makes an error. The error may be the store's, but the
right thing is still to notify the store that the extra bookcase has been sent
It's perfectly reasonable to make the case to the
customer service department that she's been a longtime customer of the store,
hopes to remain one, and that the hassle of having to return the bookcase is
significant. If the store personnel wants to let her keep it, that's up to
Ultimately, the right thing is to call attention to the
error and find the best solution about which both sides can agree.
Commencement should be a joyous time of year. Witnessing
students receive diplomas earned after completing their course of study is a
ritual of which any parent can be rightfully proud.
Reports of two incidents, one in South Carolina and
another in Ohio, however, raise questions about just how far the celebration
should go when children receive their diploma -- and raise even more questions
about how strongly an institution should respond to keep over-the-top
celebration in check.
The first incident occurred in Florence, S.C. Spectators
were told they would be removed from the Florence Civic Center if they cheered
for students as they received their diplomas from South Florence High School.
Shannon Cooper cheered for her graduating daughter nonetheless and was escorted
from the building by police into a van outside the building. She told reporters
that she was then taken to the Florence County Detention Center and held until
she posted a $225 bond. She subsequently pleaded not guilty to disorderly
conduct and requested a trial by jury, which is scheduled for September.
The second incident occurred in Cincinnati, at Mt.
Healthy High School's commencement ceremony. After graduating senior Anthony
Cornist's family was deemed to have engaged in excessive cheering, he was
informed that his diploma was being withheld -- and told he must complete 20
hours of community service before receiving it.
Having attended commencement ceremonies over the years,
I'm familiar with the regular incantations from the administrators to withhold
all applause until after all graduates have received their diplomas. I'm also
familiar with the fact that rarely if ever does an audience of family members
and loved ones comply with these requests.
That everyone ignores the pleas for restraint doesn't
make things right. But it does raise the question of what's an appropriate
response to cheering that's deemed to be "excessive."
If the attendees at South Florence High School's
commencement ceremony were clearly warned that excessive cheerers would be
removed from the ceremony, it seems fair to expect that it would not be an idle
threat. But removing someone from the hall is one thing. Arresting the
excessive cheerer as well seems a bit overboard. If attendees were warned that
they would not only be removed but charged with disorderly conduct, however,
then at least those breaking the rule were the ones being punished.
That doesn't seem to be the case in Cincinnati. There,
the students were held responsible for the behavior of the spectators cheering
them on. It hardly seems fair to punish a graduating senior because his family
and friends can't contain their enthusiasm. It would seem akin to punishing a
high school athlete because his loved ones got into a brawl during a game.
The right thing is to make the rules clear, but to make
sure the rules hold the violators directly responsible for their own actions.
Punishing graduating seniors who presumably were well behaved themselves
throughout the ceremony sends a warped message about fairness and
Rules are rules and if they're made clear people can be
expected to abide by them or risk facing consequences. But it would also serve
school administrators well to examine whether the rules they set for a
celebratory occasion are out of whack to begin with and some re-education is
needed to not cast a pall on an otherwise joyous occasion.