If offered credit for something you could have done, might have wanted to do, and would have benefited from, but that you didn’t do, should you take the credit? Does it matter that no one is likely to find out if you actually deserved that credit or not?
A reader we’re calling Minerva had taken an online course recently to keep up with the continuing education credits she needed to retain her professional license. Aside from learning what she was there to learn, one of the perks of taking the course was an offer from the course organizers of free attendance at an upcoming online course on a similar topic.
Minerva already had a commitment at the time the free course was to be offered, so she knew she would not be able to avail herself of the offer. Nevertheless, shortly after the free online course occurred, Minerva received an email confirming her attendance and informing her that as soon as she completed the evaluation for the course she would receive a certificate of completion and continuing education credits for the course.
“I could use the credits,” wrote Minerva. “But this doesn’t seem right.”
Minerva is correct. It is not OK to take credit for something you didn’t do. If the goal of the courses she takes are to add to her professional acumen, claiming credit could also result in misrepresenting herself to her clients or employers.
That no one would find out makes no difference. Fear of potentially having the course offerer later figure out the mistake that was made shouldn’t be the reason not to accept the unearned credit. It’s wrong to claim credit you didn’t earn regardless of who knows and whether or not you might be found out.
If Minerva did decide to accept the credit, she’d be compounding the lie by filling out an evaluation for a course she never took in order to get the credits. More lies told to protect the initial lie of claiming credit. But then it’s often the case the first lie is not the most challenging one to uphold. Instead it’s the subsequent lies told to cover for the initial lie, which might have seemed easy enough to commit at the time. When it comes to doing the right thing when faced with a circumstance like Minerva faced, a good rule of thumb is: Just don’t lie.
In this case, however, I would urge Minerva to go further than simply not accepting the credit for a course not taken. I’d encourage her to respond to the email by informing the course offerer of the mistake. If it was a one-off and Minerva was the only non-attendee made such an offer, there’s no harm if she refuses the credit. If the offer went out to many more non-attendees, the course offerer has the responsibility to correct its mistake and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
I suspect Minerva knew the right thing to do before writing me and was simply looking for confirmation. If her question can help others to veer toward doing the right thing and course offerer to fixing whatever went awry, all the better.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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