Earlier this year I was invited to attend the Gala of a restored theater in the downtown area where I live.
My wife has been one of many involved in a local non-profit effort to bring back a much loved landmark built in 1924. Although we had been invited to the event, we had to pay the $70 per person (as did everyone on the staff) for our own tickets.
However, entering the theater, I was so busy saying hello to friends that I didn’t pay much attention when my hand was stamped. My first thought was that this was to gain re-entrance after the intermission.
I was wrong.
As we were taking our seats, my wife reminded me that the hand-stamp was for the exclusive, after-event, sit-down, dinner party to be held in the big tent across the street. She reminded me that that ticket cost $500.
So, what was my first reaction?
“You’ve worked so hard and put in so much unpaid overtime,” I said, “they owe it to you!”
That’s right, folks, the first words out of the mouth of “Mr. Ethics” were straight from the excuse playbook.
Now, my wife did not have to pay for a ticket to the special event because, as she explained earlier, she was there to oversee details and deal with any problems that might arise. I, however, was a freeloader in her eyes. I hadn’t been invited, and more importantly, I hadn’t paid.
What did I do next?
After the performance, I talked to some of the staff in the lobby. I showed them my hand, explained what happened, and they all told me not to worry about it. There would certainly be room and, “Because of all the great work your wife has done, you should go, too.”
I’ve just been blessed!
Once inside the big tent, I tell my dear wife that I’ll just stand out of the way, won’t bother a soul. She’s still not happy, but she’s got work to do and doesn’t have time to listen to any of my ridiculous reasoning.
So, I hang out with some of the staff members. I figure, if they need something, I could help out, right?
“We’ve got everything under control,” they tell me. “Just enjoy yourself.”
So, I wander around and that’s when I notice one of four, gigantic buffet tables with the kind of food that would rival a political junket thrown by a high-powered Washington lobbyist.
I look around the room. I look back at the food. My conclusion: there’s too much food for these people. They’re never going to finish it all!
So, I get in line. But I’ll only take the salad. There’s always left-over salad, right? What could be the harm? I won’t touch the pâté, chicken l’orange, or smoked salmon.
Well, look at this, no one is touching these incredible, tomato basil, puff-pastry hors d’œuvres. I’ll take… just a couple.
(I’ll skip the part about the wine and desert tables that were under-utilized, as well.)
I’ve got a full plate now, and I decide that I shouldn’t sit down because that would be taking someone’s seat. So, I stand and eat. No problem, right? Well, actually, I use one of those tall, utility tables off to the side that no one else is using. Definitly no problem, definitely. Suddenly, I notice a small group who decides to leave the party early. So, I take their table. Come on, what’s the harm?
And so I ate, talked, and stayed until by the end of the evening I had reasoned, rationalized and justified myself into becoming one heck of an important event patron!
Except for one tiny detail. I hadn’t paid the $500.
Now, I’m sure there are those of you who would tell me, “What’s the big deal, Jim? The staff told you you could go, and your wife has put in more than enough overtime to pay the difference.”
Doesn’t change the fact that I was wrong.
So, the next morning, I drove to theater box office, confessed my sins and wrote a check for the difference.
Ethics is not about what we say, intend, rationalize, justify or explain. It’s about what we do. And I need to remember this just as much as you do.
Oh, and I showed the receipt to my wife.