We came across two items in the news last week and are trying to understand why they elicit different reactions from everyone who encounters them(including us), even though they seem to be morally equivalent.
In the first case, 17 year old Jacquelyn Lockard noticed $2.2 million extra in her bank account. She informed the bank of the error, and the bank credited here with $125 worth of interest the deposit had gathered while it was in her account.
In the second case, Microsoft overpaid the severance of some workers it laid off, and asked for the money back. This was met with general outrage that Microsoft would expect the money back. Microsoft has since agreed to let the affected employees keep the money.
We are struggling to find the fundamental difference here. In both cases, a corporation mistakenly gave people money they were not entitled to. In one case the expectation is that it should be returned, and in one case not. Some possible distinctions:
The Amount Of Money Involved
It’s possible that this is a question of magnitude. A multi-million dollar error is so clearly egregious that it must be returned. An error amounting to mere thousands is a cost of doing business. This is an unsatisfying answer because the magnitude of the error should not affect the moral calculus.
The Size of the Corporations Involved
Perhaps we have more sympathy for a small credit union then a huge multinational corporation, especially when the small company has made a huge error. This is likewise an unsatisfying answer. Stealing from the rich is as wrong as stealing from the poor.
Who Discovered the Error
Perhaps the difference is that in the case of the credit union, Ms. Lockard reported the error to them. She is therefore portrayed in a sympathetic light, as someone who made a choice to do the right thing. In the case of Microsoft, the company contacted the employees and asked for a check back, causing it to be perceived as a bully. We hesitate to accept this explanation, as we are fairly certain nobody would object to the credit union asking for $2.2 million back from Ms. Lockard.
How Sympathetic the Person Who Was Overpaid Was
Being that these were severance payments and Microsoft had just laid these employees off, Microsoft already appears in a negative light towards them. Nobody has sympathy for the bully boss, firing employees. These are unemployed people in a terrible job market and our sympathy naturally goes towards them. Asking for money from them, appears to us to be adding insult to injury. In the case of Ms. Lockard and the credit union, there is no perceived wrong done to her. She may be a nice person, but there was never any expectation that she should receive this money.
Morally, there is no difference between the two cases, but in both customer service and interpersonal relationships, being right is not enough. Especially when dealing with a public image, corporations need to take a step back and look at how their action will be perceived and not just at whether what they are doing is legalistically correct. Microsoft’s cost was far greater than the $125,000 they overpaid here.
Perhaps Chris Cummings can give us an example of this from his deep experience.