Ethics Lessons And Ethics Dunces: The Two Young Men Who Knocked On My Door

missionaries-men-mormon2I was exhausted yesterday after five hours teaching lawyers and accountants about ethics when there was a knock at my door. I could see through the window that the visitors were two young men wearing nametags, holding clipboards, forms and brochures, and I was in no mood for a sales pitch or to being asked to help some Mormons travel to Tangiers. I opened the door prepared to give them the bum’s rush.

They were good, though. Their pitch involved a free estimate and a discount for replacing our home’s casement windows. It was a local business using recent college grads, they explained. I explained in return, curtly, that I wasn’t interested, but they persisted, being personable and low key all the while. I decided that I admired their persistence and interpersonal skills—it helped that my dog liked them–and ultimately I agreed to let them give me an estimate on roof repairs, as our roof had sprung some small leaks and we might even need a new one.

They called their office as I listened and scheduled a free assessment and estimate for today at 10 AM. I gave them my phone numbers. I took their cards. Though I was exhausted and had planned on giving them less than five minutes of my time, I ended up talking to the two for twenty minutes. I felt good about it too: they were just starting out in the workplace jungle, and had done an excellent job. They were personable, professional, and determined, spoke well and had a pleasant demeanor. One was black, the other Hispanic. I thought they had earned some positive reinforcement.

Well, it’s 11: 22 AM the next day, and they haven’t shown up, and haven’t called. When they do, I’m going to tell them that they blew it: I’m not trusting a company that can’t keep its first appointment. I don’t know why they missed their promised time, and I don’t care. The key factor is that they missed it.

I am resolving right now not to let these young men, who failed this crucial test of character and betrayed my trust in them, cause me to be less fair and reasonable with the next pair of young men, or women, who knock on my door. These bozos have no connection to those future  youths (unless they are from the same company, in which case the next emissaries will be off my doorstep at “Hello!”), and the unethical conduct two young men displayed by breaking their promise to me and wasting my time shouldn’t be transferred to innocent parties.

It shouldn’t, but in the normal course of human nature, it usually will. Right now I can feel a bias taking root; I’m an ethicist, I’m fighting it, but most people wouldn’t and won’t.

Do the two young men who convinced me to give them a chance when I was inclined not to and then left me waiting realize that they not only harmed me, their employers, and their own reputations, but may have harmed others like them, who need a break, need a chance, and now will have the added burden of being considered poor risks  because “I gave two guys just like these a chance once, and they let me down, so I won’t be making THAT mistake again”?  Maybe the homeowner they failed was a recovering bigot. Maybe he said to his wife, “You’re always saying that I’m too hard on blacks and Hispanics, so I decided to give these tow kids a chance. See what happened? I told you so!”

There are two important ethics lessons here. The first is that when we behave unethically and betray someone’s trust, our conduct will often be used to justify bias against others who need that trust and are worthy of it, as we risk making our victims cynical and less open to trusting others like us, or in similar situations to the one we mishandled. In the end we are all role models for everyone else, and our conduct, good and bad, reflects on society and our species.

The second lesson is that the tendency to make universal judgments based on the bad conduct of individuals is  unfair and irresponsible. Once burned, twice shy is a description of an irrational human tendency based on emotion, not a recommendation. No, I’m not going to allow this disappointment to cause me to be less generous, fair and trusting to the next two young men who knock on my door.

I hope.

38 thoughts on “Ethics Lessons And Ethics Dunces: The Two Young Men Who Knocked On My Door

  1. Jack,
    It’s not clear from the post: were yesterday’s visitors the ones who were supposed to come today for the estimate? In my experience, the initial door-knockers aren’t usually the ones who do the follow-up estimate / sales pitch. If that’s the case, then the company–but not necessarily yesterday’s personable youths to whom you gave a chance–are the ones behaving badly.

        • No, not clearly, since I have had many such exchanges, and this one left me with the firm belief that the two I was speaking with would be the ones coming the next day. When someone says “we’ll see you tomorrow” I assume that they are speaking for themselves. If someone else is coming, I expect to be told who, and what to look for. In any event, since nobody showed at all, it’s a moot point. If they showed up to apologize, I would still say: Don’t make promises for others, if you are not going to make sure they keep them. Bye.

          • It may not have been their personal responsibility to make sure the company keeps their promise.

            Employees often say “we” and “us” when dealing with clients, due to the fact that they are speaking on behalf of their employer. If someone on the phone says “they” will send something over or even meet you, it does not necessarily mean that the person on the phone will personally handle it.

            • Not the same at all. Two guys say “we’ll see you tomorrow.” I assume, since there are two, we mean them. Someone over the phone says “we”? Yes, that means “someone from our company.”

              Words have meaning. “We’ll send someone” and “We’ll see you then” are not analogous.

    • +1

      I’m dealing with a very large project right now, and unless you’re dealing with the owner directly, you rarely see the same guy in different phases of it. Still, any contractor who’s missed a single appointment with me without reasonable advance notice is off the project.

    • Mac said, “It’s not clear from the post: were yesterday’s visitors the ones who were supposed to come today for the estimate?”

      Actually Mac, it’s 100% irrelevant; a promise was made and that promise was not kept – period. Read my comment below.

  2. A little confused by your story, and I realize you may not know this information either, but were the same guys pitching you supposed to be the same guys that did the estimates and/or work?

    In one case, if they were supposed to show up again and do the estimates, that is a personal failure (pending some extreme emergency) if they failed to show up and did not even call.

    If the company they worked for sent out an actual contractor, who then did not show, they are not responsible for that. My guess is these guys you talked to are just the salesman, and they are out there right now, going door to door in another neighborhood, thinking that their company has sent out the appropriate people. So it depends on the facts on the ground.

    • Asked and answered: See my previous response. They said that THEY would see me at 10, as in “WE will be here.” After all, they offered to do the estimate on the spot. If they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be writing that THEY misled me and THEY betrayed my trust, would I? Why would you read a story in such a way as to make no sense and to be blaming two people for a failure that may have been out of their control?

      Now, even if they were not going to personally be at the appointment, they are still responsible for making assurances that they cannot follow through on. But I’d cut them a break on that. And the next two guys who knock on my door.

      • When I encounter people interested in Landscape Work, if they ask a question outside my professional capacity, I will always refer them to another of my colleagues. I will indicate, so-and-so our certified arborist can better handle your tree concerns, HE can be out tomorrow at 1, his name is so-and-so.

        If I plan on being the one to show up, I say it’s me. It’s actually the professional thing to do other than the vague “we, the company”. And it sets clients at ease to expect a particular person they can look out for.

  3. I’ve seen this from time to time and frequently it really isn’t the young people’s fault. Minority youth show up in an affluent neighborhood, using brought there by some shady company. The young minorities always have a story about needing a scholarship to a church camp or something and by the way, would you help out by buying some overpriced magazine subscriptions. They pray on white guilt and I’ve got to the point where I just don’t open my door. If I really need magazines, I’ll buy them through my teachers association. I’m tired of shady businesses using this tactic.

  4. I was almost hired by a company like this at one point-DO NOT HIRE THEM FOR ANYTHING. Think about it. You have two options. You can hire the company whose main focus is to hire salesmen to fix your roof. Or you can hire a company whose main focus is to hire roof construction workers to fix your roof. Even assuming this business is legit, the margins are so narrow on construction jobs generally that most construction businesses have very little extra capital to pay for salespersons. If the salesperson has to get paid (which they do), and the margins for profit on construction work are already so slim, the only way to pay for the salesman is to make sure that their salary comes out of the quality of the work given to the consumer.

  5. Valentineo486 nailed it. Same for siding people, solar sales people, carpet cleaning, energy efficient windows, If they have to hire people to canvas neighborhoods for them then they are not getting enough repeat and referral business to maintain and/or grow their business. This means their talent and focus is on the sale, not the product.

    Having been a service provider for 18 years myself and still working in the industry I have seen it over and over. Go for small, owner-operated, non-franchise companies who can hand out legitimate referrals for days.

    I can ABSOLUTELY guarantee you that the pair you spoke to initially would not be the ones doing the estimate, or the work. Those type of sales people are taught to use the words that make you assume they are intrinsically involved in the whole process, but they are not. Their specialty is to get you hooked. The estimator/closer dropped the ball. Call that estimator up and thank them for saving you all of the grief you would have gotten from that shady company that has to employ such techniques to survive. You ducked a Barry Minkow.

  6. “In the end we are all role models for everyone else, and our conduct, good and bad, reflects on society and our species.”

    I often cut snippets of posts from Jack, and commenters, of interesting, insightful, or particularly meaning statements to reflect upon at a later time…I have folders full of these snippets (many from Texagg04 and HumbleTalent). But this quote right here, this is going to have me reflecting on it, and re-quoting it, for years to come. This is good stuff.

    • Chris, in agreement with your quote of Jack, I wrote something similar for a work-related project involving micro-aggressions. I don’t have it on hand, but the gist of it is this: Whether or not we approve, every time we do anything at all (or nothing at all), we are providing an example of the behavior of our species, race, gender, nationality, political affiliation, profession, religion, or of any other group into which others may place us. Everything that we do adds to, or subtracts from, the bias of other individuals. All of us need to be cognizant of this reality. Yes, as Jack says, “in the end, we are all role models for everyone else.”

  7. Jack, I have to disagree with you. I think biases are rational and ethical. It is impossible for us to have full information and a bias is a way for us to fill the gaps based on similar information that we do have. I think this is hardwired into the human brain, even on the basic level of what you see, which is how magicians make their living. While I agree that a bias can become a hatred and we should fight against that, to pretend like we are not biases can only be a pretense. The best we can hope is to be as aware as we can of the major biases and not let that stop us from treating everyone respectfully and humanely.
    When we intentionally try to turn off this normal way of understanding the universe, you wind up with silliness like the woman you wrote about a few weeks back (Ethics Jump Ball: What Is An Ethical Reaction To This Story? on Feb. 23, 2016) back who hitchhiked to the Middle East dressed as a bride. An example from my experience on a daily basis is that while I do not know the personal experiences of the unfortunately commonly seen people begging at intersections in my area, I am biased towards that if I give them money it will be used to buy alcohol or drugs, and not help them get out of a desperate situation. Same thing with people who come up to me at the gas station asking for money. It is a trust issue and I freely admit I am biased by past experiences, like the guy holding up the cardboard sign on the corner the other day that said “Why lie, I need a beer.”
    I think these biases are ethical. I have to act (or refuse to act) on limited information. Using past experiences as a guide to the present situation is more likely to give me an accurate result than no using it, so it is rational and ethical. I will freely admit that this gets to be a more complicated situation where race is involved. The problem is that cultural differences are real and often good indicators of behavior of a member of that culture, but race and culture are often correlated and racial characteristics are easier to identify than cultural characteristics most of the time.
    I think it is good to teach our kids not to be racists (my family, because of children we have adopted is multi-racial, so discussions are practical and concrete on this topic) but you can’t teach your kids to be irrational without undermining the teaching. So what I teach is a more nuanced, complicated and real understanding of the world as it is, not as we idealize it. That means understanding that cultures are different and some of those things are good and some of those things not so good. Yes, some of these cultures are tied. more or less strongly, to different racial groups. It is stupid to pretend it is not so. Regardless though, we should understand that people are individuals and may vary dramatically from their cultural norms. We should also treat everyone with respect and dignity, even criminals (which does not mean not acting within the system of justice), because that makes the best kind of society.
    So, I am skeptical about anyone who comes to my door, just as I am about unsolicited email. I think that is rational and ethical.

    • I used “bias” twice. The first: “Right now I can feel a bias taking root; I’m an ethicist, I’m fighting it, but most people wouldn’t and won’t.” That bias was a tendency NOT to trust young men who seem honest and come to my door selling me legitimate products or services. Bias isn’t experience or wisdom. It seems like those things, but it is like the sauce Bernaise syndrome. You get sick on sauce Bernaise once because the ingredients were spoiled, and after that it makes you sick, or you just won’t try it. Bias, as I often say here, makes us stupid. It is based on evolutionary, hot wired instincts to avoid what hurt you once, but those instincts are poor excuses for reason in a modern society. Biases aren’t unethical, but they LEAD to incompetence and unfairness.

      The second use of bias: “There are two important ethics lessons here. The first is that when we behave unethically and betray someone’s trust, our conduct will often be used to justify bias against others who need that trust and are worthy of it, as we risk making our victims cynical and less open to trusting others like us, or in similar situations to the one we mishandled”

      Biases cause visceral judgments, not reasoned ones. There is no good reason to be distrustful of stranger #2 because stranger #1 turned out to be a crook, any more than there are reasons to trust #2 with taking care of your life savings because #1 developed into a trusted friend. Either is a bias, both are based on emotion and an irrational use of experience. We needs to evaluate each situation rationally. In the pre-civilized wilderness, bias was nothing more than playing the odds: in those times, a stranger WAS likely to kill you, and you only had to be wrong once.

      When you say, as I do, that you need to examine biases and keep them under control, you are really saying that you need to extract what is reasonable from the bias, if there is anything, and use THAT. Well, then it’s not a bias any more. Then you are just applying relevant information rationally and and learning from it.

      • Yes, but not sure we agree with what is reasonable to extract. I am going to be more specific than I would usually with example, but they are examples, not real. If I am a shopkeeper and I need to hire a clerk and I have hired several clerks before but most of the young teenage girls I have hired seemed to be more industrious and hard working than the young teenage boys, I would still be biased if in interviewing for an open position, and lacking information that would sway me one way or the other, I tended to thinking female candidates were more likely to be a good fit than male ones.
        Please note that I am aware there are laws which dictate that, to be law-abiding, I must discount this bias. Leaving that aside, I know that this is a bias, in that my statistical sample is small and that there is wide room for variation. The point is that I often have to act with incomplete information and my experience, which is just a small, very inaccurate statistical sample, is better than nothing at guiding my decision process. Yes, in hiring, best practice would be to get better information, but if you are hiring those with little experience, you may not have much to go on, or the cost of that evaluation may be too high.
        Sometimes we have to act or not act with even less to go on. Lets say I am that same shopkeeper and I have three customers. One is a middle aged man in a suit, one an elderly lady, and a young man in a baggy hoodie with obvious tattoos. Part of my job is to watch customers to deter shoplifting. I don’t really know anything about the 3 individuals except for what they have displayed to me, age, gender, racial characteristics, dress and adornment. Any one of them could be honest or a criminal. If I watch one more than the others, it can only be that I am judging them based on the apparent appearances. This is obviously a bias, often referred to as profiling.
        Here is a rational but biased evaluation. The middle aged man in the suit probably is somewhat well off to afford the suit, and from a cost benefit basis alone the risk of a criminal conviction probably outweighs the benefit of getting an item without paying for it, so he is less likely to shoplift. The elderly lady may or may not be poor and if poor, may be desperate enough to steal, but she grew up in a time when theft was more stigmatized and so, while perhaps more likely than the middle aged man to steal, is probably more likely to steal. The young man is dressed in a loose hoodie, which is ideal for concealing items, is younger so statistically more likely to engage in criminal activity and while tattoos are more common than in earlier times they still may indicate a gang affiliation, making him the most high risk and rationally, the customer who should receive most of my attention.
        Now, I would rather live in a world where everyone was trustworthy and a person was always deemed trustworthy until they proved themselves, individually, not to be. I think this desire weighs enough that I will go out of my way to counteract those biases. When I am at the store and a young man collecting carts for the store comes and takes mine, I am more likely to say “Thank you, sir” rather than just “Thank you” if he is black, not because I am more appreciative, but just to offset any tendency he might have to think I am racist. The appreciation is the same, I just want to underscore the respect. If I was the shopkeeper in question, and it was my store (and hence my risk), I might choose to watch them all equally, realizing that would increase my chances of being stolen from, because of my desire to live in that kind of society. I am not sure that would make me unethical for acting more rationally to prevent loss by profiling, if I chose to do that. And if I was tasked with this security task as an employee, absent instructions otherwise, I think it might be unethical for me to act in any way that made me do my job less well, with the constraints of law.
        Curious as to your take, though. I have given this a lot of thought in a variety of circumstances. I think I have tended towards the side of acting as if society was better than it was in the hope that such actions make it better rather than acting on biases that were probably rational, but probably have actually been somewhere in the middle. So much of this happens below the conscious level.

    • Troy Judd, I agree and empathize with most of your two posts. Your examples are very clear. Nonetheless, while biases are natural, biases are neither rational nor ethical. Biases do help us fill in the gaps when we have insufficient information to make a rational decision. Our biases may have been critical for survival ten or twenty thousand years ago. This does not make them rational or ethical. There is a very thin line between acting on past experience (rational) and acting on bias (irrational). It is up to each of us, and part of ethical life, to accurately delineate the boundary.

      Jack is quick to advise that “bias makes us stupid”. Less cryptically, acting on bias usually results in behavior accurately regarded as the behavior of a stupid person. This is because bias is irrational. As I stated in a previous post, nature is amoral. Acting on bias is acting on nature – there is no rationality or morality involved. If we were not human, there would be nothing unethical or ethical about acting on bias. However, as humans, we have the opportunity to act rationally. When we have that opportunity, behaving irrationally is unethical. For humans, and any other creatures that know better, it’s simply stupid to act on bias alone.

      In Jack’s case, he had the opportunity to say to himself, “Yep, all black (or Hispanic or young or roofing or sales or…) people are that way”, thereby confirming any bias he may have already had. The unnatural, rational, and ethical thing to do was to recognize the ugly head of bias and say, “No, I will not be sucked into believing something that may be untrue!” Recognizing “that the tendency to make universal judgments based on the bad conduct of individuals is unfair and irresponsible” was the appropriate response.]

    • The ethics of posting a photo of two guys, one Hispanic and one black, getting ready to knock on a door, representing exactly the pair I thought the actual two were. I think the symbolic and metaphorical use of the graphics on these pages could not be more clear, and by the way, missionaries are exactly as welcome to disturb my peace by intruding on it as salesmen—they’re not.

  8. What makes this case such a problem is the well known fact that in a world where keeping in contact is so damned easy, all it would have taken would have been a quick phone call to Jack prior to the scheduled time offering an honest apology for the delay and asking to postpone or reschedule the time.

    My response when they show up, if they show up, would be to open the door, firmly tell them their lack of keeping their promise and lack of effective followup communication blew their chances with me, politely say goodbye, and shut the door in their face.

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