When Ethics and Etiquette Collide

Two recent incidents got me thinking about how hard it can be to follow your conscience when a friend tries to involve you in unethical behavior and you don’t want to offend.

Imagine you meet a former colleague for lunch to catch up on old times. You used to work for the same outfit and while your friend does ask your advice on a problem, there’s no doubt that the primary purpose of the visit is social. When the check comes you offer to split it, but he says he’ll take care of it, saying it’ll go on his expense account. Should you insist on paying your half?

Or suppose you’re out for dinner with friends and when the bill comes, the tab doesn’t include a bottle of wine you enjoyed. Your friends see no need to inform the waiter of his mistake, but you do. Do you give in to the peer pressure?

Ethics and etiquette have a lot in common. They both provide a set of rules to guide behavior when interacting with other people. In these cases, there’s a conflict, at least on the surface; you want to do the right thing, but you don’t to embarrass or antagonize your friends. The aim should be to do both, and maybe teach the friend a lesson in the process. Just do it gently.

In the case of the lunch friend, I could have just told him that what he proposed was unethical. Instead I made light of it, joking that I didn’t want to take any favors from the old firm and then adding that I knew the expense account was limited and the friend could put it to better use by spending it as intended, in ways that would help do the job better. I don’t think either argument was convincing, which is to say I think my message—that I thought it was unethical—came through. In either event, I could feel satisfied I’d done the right thing.

I also tried to finesse the wine incident, though it was harder to do. I gave the excuse that I wouldn’t want the waiter to get penalized for the oversight (I have no idea whether he would be), but I said it in a way that left no room for debate. The wine was added and the bill split among us.

One could argue that I should have taken a more direct route in both instances and used each occasion to deliver a moral lesson. But that’s not my style. I’m not a confrontational person by nature. Let me know in the comment section if you think I should have done more (or less).

Incidentally, we’ve had a few questions now on what to do when you’re undercharged for goods or services. My view is that you should always point out the error. It doesn’t matter whether you think the waiter or cashier might be penalized or whether you’re dealing with a machine at a self-checkout kiosk. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a mom-and-pop grocery or Wal-Mart. You should pay what’s due. It’s dishonest and unethical to do anything else.


3 thoughts on “When Ethics and Etiquette Collide

  1. I also dislike confrontations, so when someone offers to pay the bill, I almost always agree. I would never offer to pay the bill unless I really meant it. Yes, I always point out undercharges too.

  2. I feel that you handled both situations well in that you followed your conscience and were tactful. Perhaps in social situations it is even ethical to lead by example. After all, a premise of this site is that different people have different takes on any given situation. Especially the expense account question could be more significant to one than the other?

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