An old joke has a grocer trying to explain business ethics to his son. “Suppose a lady comes into the store,” he says, “buys two dollars worth of merchandise, pays with a fifty, and leaves, forgetting to take her change. Here’s where business ethics comes in: do you, or do you not, tell your partner?”
Now a harder one, from real life. Suppose you own a second-hand store. You run profitable weekly auctions, the seller’s best friend, by gussying up a window with a few especially nice items and inviting customers to bid. One week you take two lamp bases, outfit them with new shades, and put them in the window, describing them, accurately, as lamps, not as valuable antiques. The lamps find two bidders, who both offer substantial amounts of money. As you wrap them for the winner you both notice price tags at the bottom of the bases, for an embarrassingly small amount, from an embarrassingly modern store. The winning bidder understandably balks at paying several times for the lamps what he would have paid for the bases and shades retail.
Here’s where business ethics comes in. What do you do? You can’t very well demand that the winner pay his bid, giving him a lecture on the subjective theory of value. It’s not gonna happen. Do you simply remove the tags and go to the underbidder, who hasn’t seen them? Are you obliged to tell the underbidder about the tags, which are now essentially public information? If you don’t, what do you tell the winner, now loser, when he comes back to the store, as he surely will, and asks what happened to the lamps? Do you have to tell him anything at all? Or do you ignore the underbidder and renegotiate a deal with the winner?
I honestly don’t know the right approach, and am curious what my readers think.
(Update: John Venlet comments.)