Sunday, December 02, 2012

What's your price tag on doing what's right?

Do small acts matter?

Several weeks ago, I wrote a column about how my youngest grandson was taken aback that I would take the time to return to a store after the cashier had given me a quarter in change rather than the nickel I was owed. We talked about why it's important to do what's right even when the stakes seem small.

I was surprised at how many responses I received to the column. Most told me about similar incidents.

A.O., a reader from Mass. who runs a small used auto parts business wrote about a gentleman who had come in and purchased a cheap used tire. The fellow paid cash and A.O. gave him change. After he got to his car, the customer turned around and walked back. He returned a $100 bill that A.O. had given him instead of a $10 bill. "He could have had a free $90," writes A.O. Because he had bought a cheap used tire, he was far from wealthy. "There are honest people in the world and they get less credit than deserved. One feels good about the world after something like that."

"I am proud to say that my son found $200 at our local grocery," writes S.C., of Greenfield, Oh. "He could have really used it for bills, but he turned it in. It wasn't too long before the lady who lost it came back looking for it. She was in worse shape financially than my son. He was a hero!"

The day before she read my column, J.J. of Columbus, Ohio, had had a discussion with her college professor about an extra point he mistakenly gave her on a quiz. "He looked at me like I was crazy and said, 'Why are you telling me this?'" she writes. J.J. told him that she didn't earn the point and she wanted her grade to reflect what she deserved. He responded that since it was his mistake he couldn't understand why she was reporting it. She explained that it was like receiving too much change from a cashier and not returning it. "So it is sort of like a karma thing," he said, seeming to finally understand the reason for her actions.

But one reader's response to my column about returning the money stood out. "I've heard of unimportant controversies but this one takes the cake," writes C.S. of Lancaster, S.C. "Good for him," he wrote about reporting the mistake, but he hardly thinks it matters given the amount of money involved. "No wonder this country is so mixed up if people worry over unimportant things like this."

My take in that column was that it was precisely because people like A.O., S.C., J.J., and countless others worry about things like this that keeps folks from being even more "mixed up." If character is, as psychiatrist/writer Robert Coles writes in The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination (Houghton Mifflin, 1989), "how you behave when no one is looking," then the actions of people who do the right thing even when the stakes are small says something about their character and how they might act when the stakes are larger.

But I want to know from you. How important is it to you to do the right thing regardless of the stakes involved? Like C.S., do you have a cutoff point? Is 20 cents too little to waste your time setting things right? $20? $200? Or does doing the right thing have no price tag? 

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 

(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What price honesty? I am a senior citizen who was asked to join my son and grandchildren at a fast food franchise recently. I ordered a chicken sandwich and water. The water button on the soft drink dispenser was very small and located on top of the lemonade option. Somehow I filled up my cup with lemonade that I didn’t want. I went back to the ordering station and told an employee there about my mistake and asked her how much I owed her. She said “$1.70.” I said “That much?” She said “Yes.” I gave her the money and that was that. No thanks, no other options, no comments on being honest. Now I feel more stupid than honest. Did I do the right thing? Whether or not I did, I won’t be going back to that franchise again.