Integrity Matters
November 3, 2004

Students get on-the-job integrity training

Question: (E-149)

Dear Jim:

I work in a store that sells expensive coffee, and we're incredibly busy all the time. Sometimes, out of habit, we make a regular coffee instead of the decaffeinated that was ordered. This can be particularly dangerous for pregnant ladies, older people (who may be on pacemakers) or others who have heart issues and can't handle caffeine. But, of course, we're so busy, and it's hard to waste a drink. The ethical thing would be to remake the drink, but sometimes it was so hard, so we simply claimed we didn't know, when, in fact, we did. What do you think?


This question came to me through a business class with which I am engaged, as a guest lecturer. The course instructor, Suzanne Kroeze, enabled me to participate in "distance learning" efforts at California State University, Monterey Bay, fielding both questions from students and responses from students to their fellow students. The learning has been tremendous, for me.

My confidence in the next generation and its ability to know and do the "right thing" continues to grow. Allow me to illustrate.

First one student and then another offered these responses:

  • Response A: "Fix your mistake, make another coffee. Be certain customers get what they pay for. When a mistake can cause health problems for others, it's imperative that those responsible take action. When people pay good money they expect and deserve what they ordered."
  • Response B: "Think ahead. A health crisis caused by caffeine puts the company at risk. No company means no job. Take care of the customers, and they will take care of you."
  • Response C: "You can legitimately tell a customer of the mistake and allow them to make the decision. Owning mistakes is mature and communicates integrity."
  • Response D: "Think about the number of times the same problem arises and consider color-coded cups to keep the different coffees separated. In the meantime, do what is right for the customer."

Readers, take heart. These five responses are from university students. My assumption is that these students are workers at the same time as they are enrolled in classes to complete their undergraduate degree. They have been taught right from wrong and do not want to be placed in positions where they feel forced to compromise their values to save a dime or make a buck. They do care about doing their jobs properly. They are aware of the importance of integrity in all aspects of their lives, including work. Fixing coffee, answering phones, preparing meals, sending out communications, caring for other people -- character, honesty, partnership and graciousness are critical. Being consistent, truthful, encouraging, honoring obligations and showing respect: These are attributes that the next generation already understands. So, for those now in leadership and ownership roles, it is important to encourage and support the integrity-centered behaviors this new work force already understands.

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