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 reader's behalf.
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 request.
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.
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 email@example.com.
(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.
I'm sure glad my life isn't hampered by that much guilt and honesty!
Jeffrey the pregnant lady scenario would be hared, because the humanity in all of would hate to see if anyone suffer.
Once a person tries the local bank and the central office, that is enough time spent. The issue is not big enough for the persons at the bank to figure out what to do about it. They are only tellers, not presidents. An attempt was made in good faith and that is enough. The bank is not going to pay for the user's inconvenience in trying to return the money. That is rediculous. If one makes a fair attempt to be honest, that is enough.
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