Ethics Quiz: The Ice Cream Sundae Dilemma


It just took me more than 10 hours of assorted travel hell to reach this Colorado resort where I’m giving a keynote speech at the Utah Bar’s annual convention. I arrived in my room close to midnight, and I was parched and annoyed. I decided to indulge myself by ordering a nice, cool treat from the late night menu—a vanilla fudge sundae, with roasted pecans, whipped cream, and a cherry on top.

The young and earnest resort employee arrived 20 minutes after my call, and I signed for the dessert. It wasn’t until I had several spoonsful that I noticed something was missing: no pecans.

Your Ethics Quiz:

Should I have called up room service and demanded the promised nuts?

The factors in favor of just eating the sundae as it was without complaint:

  • It was still cold and delicious.
  • If I was going to wait for the pecans, I would have to stop eating the sundae. I didn’t want to wait before eating my ice cream, and  it would melt by the time I got the nuts.
  • Missing pecans seems like the kind of thing an ethical person ignores out of kindness and proportion.
  • The major individual inconvenienced would be the innocent server.
  • I was already itching for a fight, and I could tell that if I did make an issue out of the pecans, it would be in part because of my lousy trip. This seemed unfair.

The arguments for insisting that the resort make good on its promised pecans:

  • The sundae cost $19.78…for a scoop of middling vanilla ice cream, Hershey’s syrup, some Readi-Whip and a cherry.  The pecans were probably the priciest ingredient.
  • I like pecans. The pecans sold me on the sundae.
  • I owe it to future potential victims of the old sundae bait-and-switch to make sure that this swindle was more trouble than it was worth. If they get away with stiffing one customer of their yummy nuts,they may start skimping on the whipped cream next. We all have an obligation to flag misconduct.
  • Lousy service becomes entrenched if consumers don’t bother to beef.
  • I like making a stink when the facts are on my side. Even more than I like pecans.

Update: I did not make an issue of the nuts last night, but this morning, when the in-room dining supervisor called to ask if my breakfast was satisfactory, I mentioned the incomplete dessert. He apologized profusely, and offered to send me a free, nutty sundae this evening. I passed, but his response was the right one.

30 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Ice Cream Sundae Dilemma

  1. Not sure you’re justified in terming it a bait-and-switch/swindle.

    I would probably have called down and told them they forgot the nuts, but, “Hey, that’s okay.” They would probably have apologized and maybe even given you a freebie of some kind.

    However, in the case of my Bose 5-CD changer which was just out of warranty but had been used maybe five times and then promptly ate my CDs (I took pictures while I sledge hammered the thing open to retrieve my disks), well, I was so pissed I posted the pix and story on my blog and sent the liunk to Bose. They apologized and sent me a new changer.

    So, I guess it boils down to a matter of degree.

  2. I try to follow what I call the “Road Trip Rule” (RTR). I never complain about the service or quality of food until after whatever I’m going to eat is no longer out of my sight.

  3. Option 3: You could “request” a new sundae. They would have brought you up a new one. Whether you wanted to continue eating the current sundae (it’s going to be thrown out by the restaurant anyway, and it’s bad to waste food right?) is between you, your waistline, and your doctor.

  4. For $20 you should get exactly the sundae you ordered. However, at that time of night would you get the missing pecans delivered to your room without anything extra on them?

    At a better resort charging premium prices they should listen and cater to their customers…

  5. “Bait and switch” seems ungenerous. Probably the guy on the sundae assembly line spaced the nut bowl. I’ve never made a mistake at work myself, but I’ve heard it happens.

    I’m sure if you called down and told them they’d forgotten your nuts they would have been happy to hand you them.

  6. I admire the fact that after 10 hours of lousy travel you ordered a sundae. I would have raided the mini-bar. The mini-bar probably would have had nuts, too. 😉

  7. I think I would have called them back and told them (because they should know it wasn’t up to snuff, and for $20 for an ice cream sundae it should come plated in gold, IMO). I have found in these sorts of situations that if you are not snotty and act like a reasonable human being, they’ll usually either comp you for the item or give you something comparable for next time.

  8. It would be ethical to inform them, and more ethical to inform them but not demand a new one. (On the flipside and seemingly illogical, I don’t know if it would be unethical not to tell them)

    A confusing issue on this is matter of scale. It’s just nuts. Why get bent out of shape over nuts? But don’t we always sacrifice propriety by saying oh it’s a sna thing. How many small lies that don’t seriously hurt anyone do we tell that are still lies. How many little insignificant office supplies have we taken home that is still theft? Don’t let the matter of scale cloud this; however, the matter of scale should help govern how you tell them.

    The pecans being neglected would come from either an accident or on purpose. You can never know, but:

    If the pecans were neglected out by accident, you would be assuming that there was no sneakiness you woul probably assume that a hard working individual in the kitchen may have been near the end of his/her shift and simply made a mistake as fatigue and distraction sets in. No professional (and despite being possibly a lowly staff worker you HAVE to assume they approach their job with consummate professionalism) wants to make mistakes and not be afforded the opportunity to rectify errors and self-discipline themselves to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Golden Rule: if during one of your ethics seminars you forgot to mention a topic you included in the itinerary, but overall the seminar was a still a resounding success, wouldn’t you appreciate someone pointing out to you that you missed a valuable component?

    The other option: the pecans were left out on purpose. If there is an employee intentionally leaving out a component of what the resort is promising because the employee is either malicious or thinks he’s saving some on the margins for his employer, you certainly are obligated to inform them. Rooting out unethical employees improves life for everyone. If he/she will behave unethically with pecans, what else will they behave unethically with?

    The matter of proportion here I think implies that, although you’d be ethical to point out the error, it is late, you have been satisfied, grace implies you assume the worker made a mistake late at night, and other factors, you shouldn’t demand a new sundae.

  9. Jack, I wish that when you offered quizzes, you would not detail up front your thoughts on the issue(s), like you did here with your lists of “factors in favor” and “arguments for insisting.” That makes it too “open-book” for me. You were gracious, at least. So was the resort supervisor. Is it possible to be unethical while being gracious?

    If I’d been in your spot, I don’t know how I would have reacted. I like pecans too – enough that they make the difference between ordering something and not ordering. If I buy Butter Pecan ice cream, and all that’s in the batter is a swirl of (sugared-up) pecan butter and nothing to crunch on, you can bet your ice cream scoop and next paycheck I am going to ask for my money back. Or, if I buy a Pecan-Bon (big roll), and all that’s visible on top is a scant sprinkling of pecans chopped into pieces so small that even a small ant could haul them away. Pecan Sandies (cookies)? I am wide open to other consumers’ suggestions on the best brand of those; I still buy them (because my wife likes them too – we fight over them), but I’m to the point of not trusting that actual pecan bits are in those cookies, and am considering whether I want to just bake my own.

    Do you ever sleep??? You remind me of some guys I went to school with, in a very competitive environment. They got all the good grades. My choice was between bad grades because of almost no sleep, and worse grades with a little sleep. It wasn’t fair.

  10. Pingback: The Super-Scoring Sundae | Rambunctious Recipes

  11. The ethics violation is that they charged you more than twice the cover price for that sundae in the first place. Next time, go down to the lounge (or a nearby Baskin Robins!) and make sure it’s done right. Speaking as a Texan, though, any denial of pecans is a crime indeed!

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