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Saturday, March 23, 2013

A discussion of honesty

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master — that's all."
When you see a person doing something the wrong way, you are faced with a little bit of a dilemma. Should you correct him? Will he resent it or appreciate it? Either way it is you who must take all the risks and not the one who's in error. Most people do whatever is easiest, and so walk on without saying a word unless it's a problem with children. Parents, of course, are the ones most responsible for correcting the errors of their little charges, so with misbehaving children the solution takes much less thought, much less risk.

When I was a young boy—six or seven—I was outside playing when I found a watch. It had no band but was otherwise shiny, and when I wound it up it still kept the time. I took it home to ask my parents if they would buy me a band for my new watch. They immediately taught me my error. They explained that the watch wasn't mine. Just because I found something that doesn't necessarily make it mine. They taught me a lesson which I remember to this day. They put the watch in safekeeping and let it be known around the neighborhood that there was a watch that had been found and it was at our house to be claimed. My parents told me that if nobody claimed it within the next month then—and only then—would the watch be mine.

I was very upset about this decision at the time. How stupid I thought. Who's going to come and claim a stupid old watch with not even a band to hold it on your wrist? Even as young as I was back then I had a cynical adult's perception of the value of things. I knew cast-off and thrown-away when I was looking at it. Nevertheless, and in spite of my foul attitude, my parents were adamant. The rules would be followed, scrupulously. Time ticked by and I forgot about the watch. One day—a month later—my father came to me and presented me with my new old-watch and with a brand new leather band already on it. Thanks mom and dad. Thanks for the watchband, and thanks also for the lesson.

What do you do however when it is a grown man who's doing things the wrong way? What do you do when this person—this adult—does something that's clearly dishonest to you but they don't see it that way. You know this person won't thank you for chastising him. He'll likely resent your interference and yet perhaps it's the case that his parents never taught him the proper thing to do.

It's a dilemma—and it's an even bigger dilemma—when that person is your boss. When that happens it's an almost unsolvable dilemma. Your job is at risk, and for what? It's somebody else's loss, and somebody else's gain. I know what the right answer is but let's confound and complicate the issue even further. What if the economy is crap and you have an unfortunate background that makes finding jobs very difficult? Do you risk your job then? What if you have a wife and four children do you still risk your good-paying hard-to-find job in the pursuit of high-minded yet perhaps naive integrity when your family will suffer for it?

The thing is I know the answer to that more complicated question too, and the answer is ticking away, right beside me. Not the same watch, not after all those years, but the lesson that's never been forgotten is still wrapped around my wrist like a string tied around my finger.

Which is worse, a poor man who steals from a rich man or a rich man who steals from a poor man? It occurs to me that I'd get different answers depending on whether I asked a rich man or a poor man. A poor man would say that it's worse for a rich man to steal from a poor man because he doesn't have to. You see, the rich man is already rich. He'll still be rich even if he doesn't steal from the poor man. The rich man doesn't need the money; therefore he's only stealing because he's being especially greedy. Not only that, but the poor man obviously does need that money so he'll be especially hurt by losing it. Meanwhile, on the other hand, if the poor man steals from the rich man he'll be better off and it won't really hurt the rich man very much because he has plenty.

If you ask that same question of a rich man, he'd probably say that there's no difference; they're both equally bad. Somebody has taken something from someone else without their permission—without their knowledge or by force—and this taking is against the rules, against the law, against the Eighth Commandment: Thou shalt not steal. If people could go around stealing whatever they wanted just because they were poor, soon there wouldn't be any more rich people. There wouldn't be any towns or cities or villages either, because everybody would take all their stuff and go hide it, bury it, find a cave to live in and stand there with a big club guarding the entrance. We'd be back in the stone-ages in no time at all. People have to obey the laws and the rules or we can't have civilization.

Both the rich man and the poor man agree that stealing is wrong, but the poor one feels like it's worse when a rich man steals because it's not necessary. You could make the argument that the poor man does it from need and the rich man does it from greed. Does the reason behind the unlawful or dishonest act in any way mitigate the severity of the offense? I think it does. That's an almost universally accepted understanding. Murder is very wrong, but murdering the man who raped your daughter is less wrong, don't you think? Still wrong, still against the law, still a violation of the Sixth Commandment, but you wouldn't impose the death penalty, would you?

For these reasons it seems as though it's more wrong for a rich man to steal from a poor man than the other way around, and so when I see a rich man stealing money from three-hundred men who're very much less well off than he, I should think that's an incredibly unethical and very bad thing to do. If a millionaire employer stole $300.00 from each of his 300 employees that would be a pretty low-down rotten thing to do, don't you think? What if you called him on it and he told you to let it alone if you valued your job? What would you do? That's my dilemma today.

A $300.00 drawing was offered by the owner to all employees of the company. Entry in the drawing was to be made simply by filling out a form which had contact information including current address, telephone and cell phone numbers, and email addresses. You see this was something the owner needed anyway, and in return for the trouble of filling out the contact form we got a chance at $300.00 dollars. But, of course, there was no drawing. A winner was chosen not drawn, and worse this winner was predicted by my colleague and with my total agreement before the announcement of the winner was ever announced.

I admit that even at my very most cynical, this prediction of the winner was an exercise in two people just willfully practicing advanced cynicism. I never actually expected the boss to pick the one person he never should have picked because that would be just going way too far. That would be a jumping the shark moment that would shock everyone with any behind the scenes knowledge of office politics and the inner workings of the company. He'd never be that blatant, not really, would he? I was sadly lacking in the requisite cynicism.

I quickly and angrily typed out a response and faxed it before I could second-guess myself. This outrage must be answered, immediately! Then I sat back and wondered if I'd just put my job on the line. Some hours passed and my employer called me, furiously! He went on the attack. He'd picked out a line in my angry note and he focused all his fury on my closing sentence. It said this: "I guess that's just the way it goes around here." He questioned my loyalty. He let me know that if I didn't like my job I was welcome to go. He told me I had a poor attitude. He briefly let me know that the drawing was done properly and that I'd better figure out what was wrong with me and not with anybody else.

I 'yes sirred' and 'sorry sirred' and—with my face and neck beet-red—finally hung up the phone wishing I'd done things very differently indeed! I thought and I thought. I stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? And I puzzled and puzzled 'till my puzzler was sore. Then I thought of something I hadn't before. I had accused him of shenanigans in my note. I had accused him of wrong-doing and instead of calmly laying out the evidence of his innocence he'd gone on the offense, and violently so. This to me was further evidence that he was being deceitful. Lies were being told and I was in receipt of a great-big load of them. So without stopping and second-guessing myself I sent him another fax letting him know that I understood he'd gone on the offense because that was the best defense.

What would you have done, oh wise reader? I was always too quick to act, to react. Often those first reactions are exactly the right thing to do, but on second thought we decide to wait, see how things go, play it safe. I'm forty-five with a family of six and no prospects for a decent job if I lose this one. Will I regret my hasty decision? Should I have put my way of life in jeopardy over a three-hundred dollar drawing?

My boss—the corporation's owner—quickly called me back. He was incredulous! He started in on the same line of attack from before, but I hollered back even louder, that I knew he was off on a red-herring wild-goose-chase and he was still avoiding the central accusation. That set him back on his heels and in a moment of honesty he let me peek behind the curtain. He explained that since there are more than a thousand employees who were supposed to respond to this contest with their contact info and since only a little over three-hundred had in fact responded, he was going to have to do it all over again. So why—he asked—should he waste $300.00 on somebody who perhaps didn't deserve it, when he had someone who clearly did deserve it, and when he'd have to fork over another $300.00 on another contest?

In the first conversation he'd told me that the drawing was done properly. So I guess sadly we're down to the definition of words. This Clintonesque conundrum baffles me still. "What's in a name? That which we call a drawing by any other name would smell as fishy." It all comes down to what we mean by the words that we say. I'll give him credit. Maybe the boss really did draw the winner’s name. Maybe he drew it with his pen on a post-it-note and then said "Here's your winner!"

Now we're down to my final thoughts in this rambling discussion of honesty. Now that the millionaire owner of the company has betrayed more than 300 employees who are much less well off than he, now that he's confessed this betrayal—this theft—to me his loyal employee of seventeen years, what do I do about it? It occurs to me that it's too bad he apparently never had honest parents like I had. Oh I stole. I lied. I did bad things. I'm no angel. But at least I knew when I was doing wrong, but judging by my acrimonious conversation with the owner, I honestly don't think he understands that he's in the wrong. The way I see it he's on the wrong side of the balance scales to the tune of $89,700. That's $300.00 for every person that entered his contest and never had a snowball's chance in hell of winning it.

If you've read this far I welcome your thoughts and helpful comments. Please no trollishness I'll just moderate you. I don't have the energy for pointless spite this morning.

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