Do we encourage corruption and crime?

A boy, looking around 15 years old and dressed in baggy Bermuda shorts and a T shirt was about to leave the supermarket after having purchased a kilogram of rice when the billing clerk called out to him and asked him what he had in his pockets. When the boy answered, “Nothing,” the billing clerk walked up to the boy and demanded that he empty his pockets. The boy refused to do so, whereupon the billing clerk stated that he would call the police. Hearing this, the boy took out a chocolate bar from one of the pockets of his baggy Bermuda shorts and gave it to the billing clerk, who immediately put his hand into the boy’s pockets and brought out some more chocolate bars and a few small packets of almonds and cashewnuts! By this time, the Manager, a middle-aged man, had reached the spot. The billing clerk reported to him that the boy, who had purchased a kilogram of rice worth Rs. 60, had shoplifted items worth around Rs. 400!

The boy immediately protested that he was being wrongly accused by the billing clerk, saying he had bought these items at another shop. The billing clerk angrily landed a tight slap on the boy’s cheek and was about to do more, but the Manager firmly restrained him and ordered him to go back to the billing counter.

The Manager showed the boy the supermarket’s price labels on the shoplifted items, and gently told him that there was no doubt that these items had been shoplifted. The boy, who was weeping and trembling, kept saying, “I’m sorry.” The Manager put his arm around the boy’s shoulder and said, “Your parents are our regular customers. They are very nice people. Do you think they would be happy that you’ve done something like this? Normally, we take very strict action against shoplifters. Bu, since you are a young boy, and because we think this is the first time, we will not take any action against you this time. I hope you realise that you’ve done something wrong. Please don’t do this again. Go home now.” The boy thanked him repeatedly and left.

I witnessed this entire incident two days back. My immediate reaction was to appreciate the manner in which the Manager handled the situation, though I could not help wondering whether he would have handled the situation in the same way if the boy had belonged to a poor family. Would he would have encouraged, perhaps instructed his staff to beat up the boy?

Later, I wondered: what is likely to happen now?

a. The boy’s parents are likely to be ignorant about the incident. In this case,
i. The boy may be tempted to try shoplifting at other supermarkets, taking care to ensure he doesn’t lift too much each time since he would have ‘learnt the lesson’ that it was his bulging pockets that gave him away this time.
ii. The boy may not attempt shoplifting or any other dishonest acts ever again.

b. If the boy’s parents learn about the incident from the boy, it is most likely that the boy will claim that he was wrongly accused, that it was all a misunderstanding, etc.. Most probably, his parents will believe him, tell him to be careful of ‘bad people’ in future and decide that they all should not patronise the particular supermarket.

In both cases, it’s difficult to say whether the boy has learnt that honesty is the best policy, or whether he has learnt that getting caught was his mistake. He may have learnt one wrong lesson: if he’s caught and he’s guilty, he can get away by issuing a ‘sincere apology’! Perhaps, if it’s a serious crime, he could get away by ‘offering to recuse himself for 6 months’ as an act of atonement!!

I think the Manager could have handled the situation in a much better manner, particularly since he knows the boy’s parents. He should have asked the boy’s parents to come to the supermarket, given them proof that their son had shoplifted, and requested them to take corrective action to prevent recurrence of this incident, in his supermarket or in any other shop.

What do you think? Shouldn’t we take steps to prevent corruption and crime? Does our attitude of ‘forgive and forget’ allow people to get away too easily? Are we actually encouraging corruption and crime by this excessively soft approach?

(This post was originally published on Nov 30, 2013.)

Respectful or disrespectful? Smart or foolish?

One afternoon, I was with a customer in his office, when he received a call on his mobile from somebody whom he addressed as Chachaji (Uncle). My customer immediately stubbed out the cigarette he was smoking, shouted for the peon, switched off the air conditioner, opened the windows, put on the fan, asked the peon to take the ashtray away and spray room freshener, and ran to the washroom while the peon did as instructed. A few minutes later, the peon put off the fan, closed the windows, and switched on the air conditioner. By then, my customer had returned from the washroom after having washed his face and gargled with mouthwash. The smoke and smell of tobacco had almost totally vanished! It was an efficient military operation!

A minute later, an elderly gentleman entered the room. My customer stood up and, saying, “Namaste, Chachaji!” touched his feet, and introduced me to his uncle. Chachaji was collecting funds for the construction of a new wing in the school run by the Trust of which he was Secretary. My customer dutifully handed over his cheque and touched Chachaji’s feet again. His work done, Chachaji left.

“Thank God!” my customer exclaimed as he sat down in his chair. “I have a lot of respect for Chachaji. To me, he is like God! He considers smoking a sin. If he had seen me smoking, he would have been terribly upset,” my 40 years old customer said.

I knew this customer quite well, so I responded, “If you really respect your uncle so much, and if he considers smoking a sin, you should stop smoking.”

“Boss, I’m under too much stress. Right now, I can’t even think of giving up smoking!” he declared.

“I think that, by continuing to smoke and concealing from your uncle the fact that you smoke, you are not respecting your uncle. On the contrary, this is utter disrespect,” I replied.

My customer is not an exception. He is the rule. Many men smoke, drink, etc. without the knowledge of their families. I know of some men, paragons of virtue at home, who ‘freak out’ on alcohol and tobacco when they go out of town, only to become ‘goody-goody boys’ when they return home!

I also know of women from conservative families leaving home dressed in traditional clothes, ostensibly to attend a ‘ladies get-together’ (or a ‘family get-together’ if they’re accompanied by their husbands), but actually headed for a discotheque. Under the traditional clothes are worn ‘daring’, ‘modern’ outfits. The traditional clothes are shed before they reach their destination. After enjoying themselves at the discotheque, they again don the traditional clothes before reaching home!

If a person believes that there is nothing morally or ethically wrong with whatever he/she is doing, why can’t that person do it openly? (While I’ve confined my comments to smoking, drinking and dressing, this applies to many other matters. Please read this Firstpost report about an engineer committing suicide because his wife posted photographs of their ‘secret’ wedding on Facebook.) If he/she faces disapproval from his/her elders, he/she should discuss the matter with the elders and come to a mutually acceptable conclusion. If he/she feels very strongly about the matter and if the elders are just not willing to accept his/her opinion, then he/she should do whatever he/she thinks is right and be prepared to face the consequences. Doing anything on the sly is not the solution.

At the same time, elders should understand that they cannot expect their children and children-in-law to stick to the same lifestyle as theirs. Change is inevitable.

Most importantly, youngsters must resolve that, when they become elders, they will not forget that they were once youngsters themselves

What do you think?

(This post was originally published on Oct 31, 2013.)

Honesty is the best policy

One afternoon, a new customer entered our office and asked to meet me. He told me that one of our existing customers had asked him to contact me, and gave a brief description of the equipment that he needed urgently. I confirmed to him that the equipment he needed could be supplied by us. The price was Rs. 20,000 + 10 % Sales Tax. Luckily, we had one piece in stock! He immediately confirmed that he would buy the equipment and would give us a cheque for Rs. 22,000. At that point, I asked him what exactly he needed the equipment for. After hearing his reply, I told him that the equipment we supplied was too precise for his work. I informed him that his requirement could be fulfilled by a similar product supplied by another company. That equipment was less precise than ours, but the price would also be lower by 50% or more. In response to his request, I gave him the address of that company.

After the customer left, my colleague, who was a few years my senior, expressed his exasperation at the fact that I had turned away a customer who was about to give me an order with full payment. “You are totally unsuitable for sales!” he declared. I shrugged and replied that my conscience did not permit me to let the customer buy something that he did not really need. If that meant I was unfit for a sales job, so be it!

This incident was soon forgotten by us since the particular equipment was among the lowest priced items in our product range.

About 6 months later, the same customer came to our office and met me. He had received a huge export order, and had to increase his production capacity. He gave me a list of the equipment that he needed. I told him that we could supply all the equipment in the list, but, again, I wanted to be sure that the equipment that we supplied would be most suitable for his requirement. After discussing for a few minutes, I confirmed that our equipment did meet his requirement. The total cost would be Rs.1.8 million + 10 % Sales Tax. The equipment could be delivered about 4 to 5 weeks after we received an order with 10 % advance. He immediately confirmed his order and gave me a cheque for Rs. 180,000. I was surprised that he had made a decision so quickly. I asked him if he had taken competitive offers from any other suppliers. He replied that he did not need any competitive offers. Based on our earlier encounter, he was sure that, if any other equipment was better suited for his requirement, I would have told him so myself!

After the customer left, I turned to my colleague and said, “We got a huge order on a platter today because, that day, I LOST the order but I WON the customer’s confidence!”

(This post was originally published on August 10, 2013 as Is honesty the best policy?)

It’s OK to make honest mistakes!

Hindustan Times reported that, in his first meeting with nearly 80 secretary-rank officers, Prime Minister Narendra Modi demanded quick and bold decisions from the top bureaucrats, telling them not to worry about prosecuting agencies. He promised to back them all the way if they make honest mistakes. This reminded me of one of my own experiences.

A few years back, a customer reported a problem in a machine that had been supplied by us just over a year earlier. When our Service Engineer checked the machine, he found that a part had got badly worn out and had to be replaced. He informed the customer, who asked us to supply the part immediately. Since the machine’s warranty had expired, he would have to pay Rs. 6,000 for the part.

The next morning, another Service Engineer met me and informed me that he had worked on the same machine the previous week. The damaged part had been perfectly OK then. Since it had got badly worn out in a very short time, he felt that he might have made some mistake while refixing the part that day. He had obtained the correct procedure from the manufacturer. Now, he was sure that he had indeed made a mistake. He felt that we must not charge the customer for the replacement part and offered to pay for it himself.

I immediately replied that, while he had definitely made a mistake, I appreciated his honesty, particularly because nobody would have known if he hadn’t pointed out his own mistake. I also turned down his offer to pay for the part because, since his employer gets full credit for his good work, his employer will also take full responsibility for his mistakes.

We informed the customer exactly what had happened, assured him that the part was being replaced free of cost, and apologised for the inconvenience caused to him.

This Service Engineer was in the last month of probation when this incident took place. Prior to this incident, we were not sure whether we would confirm his appointment. However, because of this incident, his appointment was confirmed!

Obviously, we rewarded the Service Engineer for his honesty. Why didn’t we penalize him in any way for having made a mistake? Please read the quotes below.

A life spent making mistakes is not only more honourable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing. – George Bernard Shaw

Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time. – George Bernard Shaw

If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes. – John Wooden

Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations. – Steve Jobs

An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field. – Niels Bohr

No man ever became great or good except through many and great mistakes. – William E. Gladstone

I’ve learned that mistakes can often be as good a teacher as success. – Jack Welch

I was taking myself very seriously when I was going through life changes. And I realized that I needed to laugh at myself, particularly at my mistakes. – Spencer Johnson

Take risks. Ask big questions. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes; if you don’t make mistakes, you’re not reaching far enough. – David Packard

I love mistakes because it’s the only way you learn. – Jane Fonda

I wouldn’t change anything because the mistakes and the hurt are as important as all the great fights. They made me who I am today. – Sugar Ray Leonard

You make your mistakes to learn how to get to the good stuff. – Quincy Jones

To swear off making mistakes is very easy. All you have to do is swear off having ideas. – Leo Burnett

Parenting by example

Some years back, my neighbour, a businessman, had mentioned that he normally discusses the highlights of his day’s work with his family during dinner. This was his way of grooming his 9 years old son who, he hoped, would eventually take over his business. One evening, when this neighbour’s son was playing with his friends, his elder sister reminded him that he had not prepared sufficiently for his Mathematics test the next day. The boy, obviously more concerned about his game than about the next day’s test, ignored her. She pointed out that he had to do well in that test to make up for his poor performance in the previous test. If he did badly in the next day’s test, he would be in trouble. His reply: “Don’t worry, Didi! I’m sure I’ll do well tomorrow. By chance, if I do badly, I’ll bribe the teacher to give me good marks.” Obviously, my neighbour’s grooming was effective!

On another day, I was at another neighbour’s house when his son returned after purchasing some items from the local grocer. The boy handed over the bill and the change to his mother, who realised that the grocer had given excess change by mistake, Rs. 37 instead of Rs. 27. She requested her son to return the excess amount to the grocer immediately. The 12 years old boy was reluctant to go out again as it was very hot outside. His mother insisted, explaining that, while Rs. 10 was a minor amount for them, it was a significant amount for the grocer, hence they should not take even the slightest chance that they would forget to return it later. To the best of my knowledge, the mother was not trying to groom her son. She was only doing what she thought was correct. In the process, she was being a wonderful role model for her son!

With reference to honesty, discipline, compassion, punctuality, fairness, tolerance and other values, which of these examples fits you best as a parent/elder?

(This is a re-post, with changes, of my post dated July 13, 2013.)