Sunday, July 10, 2016

Doing right even when it might embarrass others

When H.D. decided to replace the lighting fixture in his home bathroom, he decided to buy a new one from the nearby big-box hardware store. He lived in an old house and the existing bathroom fixture hadn't been changed in more than 40 years, but he was hoping it would be a simple job.

H.D. drove to the store, found a fixture he thought might look good, purchased it and returned home. After he tried to install it, he decided it didn't look as good as he hoped so he took the fixture off the wall, put it in its box, and returned to the store to find a different one.

Once in the store, H.D. found a few fixtures in the lighting section he liked better. He then solicited the help of a customer service representative.

The customer service rep was very helpful and offered to open up a few boxes containing the other fixtures in which H.D. was interested so he could see them up close. The customer service representative was very attentive and spent several minutes helping H.D.

Eventually, H.D. decided on the one he liked best. It cost a few dollars more than the earlier one that H.D. had purchased. H.D. explained to the customer service representative that he had to return the fixture he bought before purchasing this new one.

"Do you have your receipt for the old one?" the customer service representative asked.

H.D. told him that he did. The customer service representative then offered to put the more expensive fixture in the old fixture's box and told H.D. he could just leave the store with it.

Even though it seemed that the customer service representative was trying to do him a favor, the offer didn't feel quite right to H.D. since the new fixture cost a few dollars more. Still, H.D. didn't want to embarrass the customer service representative by declining his offer. So he let the customer service representative put the more expensive fixture in the less expensive one's box and left the store.

"What should I have done?" asks H.D.

By allowing his concern about embarrassing the customer service representative guide his decision, after he made his offer, H.D. effectively stole from the big box store. His instinct about the offer not feeling "quite right" was a good one.

The right thing would have been to decline the offer, return the less-expensive fixture, and then pay the asking price for the new fixture. H.D. was wrong to participate in deceiving the store by leaving with a more expensive item in the wrong box. It would have been no different had he pocketed a handful of nails equal to the price difference and left the store without paying.

If the customer service representative had the discretion to offer the slightly more expensive item for the same price, he should have told H.D. that. He didn't indicate that he did and the suggestion of switching boxes suggests he knew what he was doing was wrong. Wanting to help H.D. find the right fixture was a good thing to do. That's part of the customer representative's job. Offering to help him defraud his employer was wrong. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 



William Jacobson said...


The customer service rep has not done anyone any favors through his switching of boxes. While it might appear that the customer benefits to the tune of a few dollars, imagine what happens if he needs to return the second fixture. He no longer has a receipt for the correct item. If he needs warranty service on the product from the manufacturer, he similarly has no proof of purchase. The store's inventory has been thrown off. It now shows it has one more of the second fixture than it actually does and it shows one less of the first fixture than it actually does. As a result, the store will only be ordering one more of the old fixture to replace the one that they believe that they are down.

My guess is that the customer service rep is measured on the number of returns that occur while he's manning the counter and this rep has found a way to game the system to prevent some of those returns. It's a lose lose situation as t hurts the customer, the store and will ultimately cost the rep his job when he is caught.

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Anonymous said...

Jeff and William are quite correct. Whatever and why the C/S person did this is immaterial. It was wrong!
Most stores have a policy on returns with no tag. Particularly when another item is replacing it (not a shoplifted item just to get $$$$$$).
The C/S person is very stupid and should get fired.
Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma.