Start-up companies often have growing pains, and J.L., a reader from the Northeast, recently found himself on the receiving end of such pain. The incident challenged him on just how honest he should be.
After agreeing to do a small amount of contract work for a start-up, J.L. was sent a check for his services. As he'd grown accustomed to doing, J.L. used an app on his smartphone that allowed him to photograph and deposit checks into his bank account remotely. The process seemed to work seamlessly, as it had in the past.
A day or so later, J.L. received an email from his contact at the start-up.
"I wanted to let you know that I was just notified about a problem with the company's checking account," the email read, "which means that if you deposited the check I sent you it may not have gone through. If so, I'll be happy to send you a new check and cover any fees you may have been charged. So sorry!"
J.L. went online to check his bank account and saw that the check was still processing, so he didn't know if there were any problems. He emailed his contact back to say he'd inform her if the check bounced and any fees were incurred.
Two days later, J.L. checked online again and found that the check had indeed been returned for insufficient funds. There was also a $12 fee assessed his account because of the bad check.
J.L. emailed his contact, who asked him to send her a copy of the statement with the bank charge on it. J.L. did and within days a new check arrived for the original amount plus the additional $12 to cover the cost of the bad check fee. J.L. deposited the check by using his smartphone app again, and this time the check cleared within a few days with no problems.
A day or so after the check cleared, however, J.L. checked his account balance online and saw that his bank had waived the bad check fee and credited his account for the $12 he'd been charged. He still has no idea why the bank did this, although he suspects it had something to do with the size of the balance he keeps in his account.
J.L. had already been paid for his work plus the additional $12. His contact would never know that he'd been credited for that $12 for the bank. Should he tell her and offer to return the $12? Or should he let things lie and chalk up the extra loot to a bank error in his favor?
Without question, the right thing for J.L. to do is tell his contact and offer to return the $12. J.L. recognized this and dutifully told his contact.
"Please keep the $12," she emailed back, expressing her appreciation for his honesty. It's likely to be the beginning of a long working relationship.
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
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(c) 2014 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.