Ethics Quiz: Is Nice Necessarily Ethical?


If it seems like I always have ethics dilemmas to deal with on the road, your impression is correct. I’m at a hotel in Boston, and I have another one.

I arrived at the hotel after a late flight tired, with a headache. The door was locked, which is sometimes the case after 10 or so at small hotels; it was 11:30 PM. So I rang the bell. Nobody. I rang it again. And again. I knocked. Then I rang again. Finally, I went into the pub next door, which was also closed, but the door was ajar. “Does anyone know how I’m supposed to get checked into the hotel?” I asked>

Someone did know: the hotel night clerk, who had gone next door to watch TV.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Should I complain to the hotel management about this?

I am torn. The Golden Rule is no good. Who am I doing unto others like I would have done unto me—the clerk, the hotel management, or the next guest who is going to encounter lousy service. The nice thing would be to let it go. Yet this is how service gets worse and worse, how people get ruder and ruder, and how the quality of life declines. The woman muttered “sorry about that” after she checked me in, but she was pretty blase about it.  This is the entitlement problem. She feels she has a right to her job, and as a customer I’m supposed to just accept the level of service I get and be grateful for it.

I have stayed at hundreds of hotels. I gave never had trouble getting in the door, or had to search for a clerk.  It costs me nothing to just check out tomorrow morning and forget the incident. But would I endorse a standard in which inexcusable rotten service like that is always allowed a pass? I think such a standard would be a societal disaster. Doesn’t the balancing of outcomes dictate that the clerk has to learn a lesson, perhaps a hard one? I don’t want her to lose her job. I just want her to be a better clerk.


26 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Is Nice Necessarily Ethical?

  1. Then talk to the clerk and not to management.

    On the topic of “nice”, consider the possibility that nice is passive and essentially a pushover in most cases.

    Be kind. Kind isn’t passive. Kind is assertive. Kind also knows when it’s time not to be kind. But kind also knows there are ways to let people know they’ve screwed up in a manner that is polite and frank but not offensive or aggressive.

    Kind would talk to the clerk and hope the clerk learns from your civil discourse.

      • If that was his attitude then speak to management . If he had been contrite and apologetic then I would consider not saying anything to management but with that attitude screw him. Get him fired.

        • I’m with Bill on this one, but when I need to talk to someone about an employee’s behavior, I never think on what punishment I expect to see doled out. I don’t have the context for their work history to decide that one incident should get them fired or not. But, he’s right on the first part. If that was his attitude, tell his bosses, and if if they won’t do anything, tell THEIR bosses. What they do is up to them, but you can at least make sure they know.

      • At times, when I have had bad service, I usually provided feedback via the form. On occasions where this had to happen, I often got an apology and the establishment made it right as best they could.

        Granted, my experiences were messed-up orders at McDonald’s, but…

      • Well, if that’s the case, then yes, go to management. You’d want to be informed if you had an employee trashing your name and your business through their behavior.

        Also, sent you a link heavy email just now, may end up in your junkmail folder. Also, did you get a chance to review the one I sent during the chaos of last week?

  2. I’d report it, she could have had a book or streamed something to alleviate the boredom without abandoning her post. I don’t think anyone would have blamed her for watching Stranger Things on a tablet while at the same time being ready to attend to guests as needed.

  3. Almost all hotel chains have an online survey. Filling that out is a bit passive aggressive, but balances the wait of a formal complaint versus routinely solicited feedback. A sign directing customers to the pub, a late night contact number or intercom. or a TV in the lobby, could completely eliminate this problem in the future. It might also prompt management to make the night clerk’s job a little less tedious, improving everyone’s experience.

  4. Doesn’t the balancing of outcomes dictate that the clerk has to learn a lesson, perhaps a hard one?

    The answer to your question is, “Absolutely.” When we receive poor service, we never remonstrate with the server — always with the management.

    Businesses depend upon feedback like that to make decisions which will either make them profitable or unprofitable. If the clerk, who was clearly in breach of her duty to her employer as well as to his patrons (of which you were one) gets sacked due to her behavior, she will at least have the opportunity to learn one of life’s lessons. Hopefully it won’t come to that, but that’s a problem for the management, not for you. You’ve already had your problem.

  5. You know me – the original Mr. Nice Guy and benefit of the doubt giver. If there had been more response than a “whatever” in her dealings with me, I’d have gone to bed with forgiveness in my heart. “Whatever” means she’ll do again – it gets reported.

  6. I’m of the opinion that you have to go to hotel management about it, and would have to even if the employee had seemed receptive what you said once you found her. There are various minor and a few important reasons why a hotel likes to have their desk staffed around the clock, and this employee clearly does not understand those, or why doing hier job is important. When you start balancing things, your ethical responsibilities to the future guests at the hotel end up outweighing any responsibility to be kind to the employee.

    What if you had been emergency services personnel, responding to a call from someone who was in distress in one of the rooms? What if you had been inside the hotel already and somehow gotten locked out of your room, in such a state that you either didn’t want to or could not go wandering around to try and find the clerk at a different business? What if another person staying at the hotel had taken advantage of her absence to access the computer and steal people’s billing information, or change the charges on their accounts?

    All of those things are possible events, and those possibilities, among others, are why her employer pays her to be at her post during her shift… because the hotel has a responsibility to care for its guests, and she is the primary point of contact to organize and arrange for that care. The employee had no way of knowing that something which required her attention would NOT come up when she walked away from her post (as evidenced by the fact that something DID come up, with your arrival), and the fact that the situation ended relatively happily does not absolve the employee of her abandonment of responsibilities.

    By not informing the management, you’re letting the employee benefit from moral luck, and falling for the trivial trap (rationalization #8).

    • Well said, Tim. this is more than an inconvenience for one person, it is a (possible) liability for the business. Fire, medical emergency, lost child, or a criminal situation could all happen, and the employee would not get sued (and likely doesn’t have anything if sued anyway) but guess who has, if not deep pockets, accessible ones?

  7. I would say the Golden Rule does apply. Would you want other guests to go through the same problem? Would you want them to say something to management? If the pub’s door hadn’t been ajar what would happened? If you were the manager would you want to know? Please say something. Management cannot correct a problem they don’t know exists.

  8. It is not your job to police an employee of an establishment. However, most establishments (at least the hotels I have stayed at) invite criticism in the form of a comment card. I do not know how seriously they are taken, but I would be sure to make sure the situation was reported on one of those. It is unlikely some management was even there at that hour.

    Furthermore, I think you have a (maybe moral) responsibility to talk to someone who as wronged you. Some call this the Matthew 18 approach.

  9. Let the management know that because of their “policy” to not have someone readily available at the hotel to check in guests after hours you will not be recommending their hotel to your friends and colleagues.

    That covers all options and get’s your point across.

  10. Write an email, set out everything but happened. BUT, don’t use the word “never” because then you will have given them a reason not to do anything about it because they have already lost you as a customer.

    Seven words not to use with customer service:

    1. Lawyer (then all communication stops except between lawyers)
    2. Fire (You’re not going to get anyone fired, and if you do, you’ll never know about it)
    3. Bankrupt (Do you really think you’re going to put someone out of business?)
    4.Media (Do you really have the access?)
    5. Never (if you will never use them again they have no reason to help you)
    6. @#%*! (Do I really need to explain this?)
    7. Beatdown (Do you WANT to go to jail?)

  11. You can express dissatisfaction with the level of service by describing exactly what happened – without any hyperbole- in a sincere attempt to inform management so they can take corrective action. You can and should do this in a nice manner.

    The question was about always being nice. Nice simply means Not Being Mean. So the answer is yes.

  12. I just realized that I never answered the question posed in the title…

    Is Nice Necessarily Ethical?

    In my opinion, the simple answer is No.

    For example; I think it would be unethical if being nice allows unethical behavior in others to continue.

  13. Do you speak to management about this problem rather than the clerk? Of course. The clerk left her position at the desk and went to watch TV because she was bored. Other commenters wrote a laundry list above of reasons why the clerk must be at the front desk, which I won’t take up time repeating. If she was bored, she had options. Read a book or newspaper. Fiddle with your smartphone. Do a crossword. But you sit at the damn desk to do it. That’s what your job is. That is what you are paid to do. The one thing you don’t do is irresponsibly leave your workstation and disappear.

    Had this been a situation slightly beyond her immediate control (in the bathroom, getting paperwork from down the hall, etc), then the golden rule and/or being “nice” could be considered as a reasonable response. That’s up to the customer and the specifics of the situation.

    Is being nice necessarily ethical? Of course not. Being nice is simply being pleasant or kind. Being ethical means potentially disagreeing with others as you’re defending a moral stance or concept. If someone says a racist comment to me, my ethics would require me to disagree with their comment. I could be nice (or not nice) in how I frame my disagreement.

  14. UPDATE: While checking out, I described the incident to the morning clerk, who promised to pass it along. “That shouldn’t happen,” he said. “That’s terrible.” He asked which night clerk it was, and I told him. “Oh,” he said. “That explains it.”

    • Doesn’t this fact make the dilemma rather easy? Assuming the night clerk is driving away business, it seems you have an ethical duty to the morning clerk to report the night clerk. After all, the morning clerk may need this job and if the hotel folds because of the night clerk, he’s lost a job he needs. Certainly, if you were the morning clerk, you’d want a person in your shoes to make the complaint, wouldn’t you?

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