Recently on Hashkafah.com, someone asked about how to get a cell-phone charge reversed. Another poster commented that it was unethical to try to get out of paying this charge, so long as the charge was honestly incurred. Accusations were hurled, but the long and short of it was this: though halacha may insist that we treat the unethical ethically, does halacha mandate that we treat companies like humans?

On the one hand, if ethics is a guide for our own behavior, why should it matter that we are interacting with a company and not a human? Why does the existence of an abstraction like a corporation change what’s expected of us as ethical humans?

Yet, as all of us who have been through a punishing round of “customer service” can attest to, dealing with a corporation can be tremendously frustrating. But it’s not the frustration that makes me believe that the rules should be different. It’s that the interaction between company and consumer has a very different set of rules that govern it, and these rules flow as much from the imbalance of power between the parties as from a desire to limit the context of the conversation solely to the business relationship.

I had an illuminating experience dealing with Citibank once. At the time I was poor, and lived month-to-month. Unexpected expenses were back-breaking, and I often needed to know exactly when checks would clear or expenses would be deducted. In a crunch, I received a check that I wanted to deposit, but I was concerned that the funds would not be made available immediately. I considered going to a check-cashing facility, but I knew that their fees were high, and I was only hurting myself in the long run by using them.

I decided to call Citibank and find out how quickly I would have access to my funds. Customer service explained to me that the first $100 of my check would be credited to my account instantly, and the rest would clear over the next few days. I was delighted! I went to the bank and deposited the check. Of course, no money was credited to my account, and I was forced to call customer service again.

After fighting through layer after layer of ever more demonic reps, I finally reached the top of the pyramid. I was informed by the person at the top of the pyramid that basically, nobody was empowered to make the changes to my account that I requested. Evidently, they were only empowered to promise results, not to achieve them. I could lodge a complaint, but only via snail mail. In other words, the entire customer service structure was set up to divert customers and frustrate them, not to resolve genuine problems.

I had a similar experience with Kitchenaid over a faulty stand mixer. Calls and complaints through customer service yielded no reasonable responses, and for months I was at an impasse. A friend advised me to write a letter to the CEO or other corporate official at Kitchenaid and see what might happen. I figured I’d try one more shortcut, and eventually found the email address for Kitchenaid’s brand manager at the parent company, Whirlpool. One well-worded email was all it took. The next day I got a phonecall and an offer to replace my mixer, completely free of charge. Customer service was simply not empowered to solve customer problems!

These experienced, de riguer when dealing with large corporations, are nearly non-existent when dealing with mom-and-pop shops. That’s not to say that privately-owned stores are giving away the farm; it’s that they never hide behind a corporate veil. When the owner of a store looks you in the eye and says “sorry buddy” to your request, you know that he’s not saying he can’t help you, he’s saying that he won’t help you. He’s not running from the confrontation, he’s meeting it head on, and paying the price of his choice. A corporation, on the other hand, is abdicating responsibility, or worse, actively attempting to keep you from speaking to anyone who could actually help you. How many of us have learned, when calling customer service, that the first question we need to ask is whether the person we are speaking to is empowered to resolve our issue?

There’s another aspect to this that further separates business dealing with a corporation from business dealings with an individual. If an individual is in business and doesn’t do well, he makes less money. The incentive to treat customers well is obvious and immediate. If a corporation loses money the impact of that loss is not felt quite as immediately. Employees get paid. Sure, they may also get fired if things are dire, but largely, a company absorbs the loss and carries on. This financial resiliency is crucial to our economic health, but it changes the context of our business relationships.

I think that two things underlie our halachic requirements to act ethically. First, it is our duty to God and to ourselves to act in a manner consistent with holiness, honesty, and a person seeking to be worthy of a personal relationship with God. But we are also charged to act ethically so that others will act ethically. We are meant not only to set an example, but to create expectations, to create a living context of ethical behavior.

When an individual acts unethically, we respond ethically to attempt to influence that person, to acculturate that person, to reinforce the importance of ethical behavior. It’s not as though we ignore the transgressions of the unethical actor! We apply whatever penalties might have been incurred. But we do not cheat them back, because to do so would be to accede to a world in which we all must cheat.

This reasoning does not hold true for corporations, because when we interact with customer service we are not engaging in a real form of communication. We are instead being funneled into a system that allows the corporation to choose what it wishes to hear and what it wishes to ignore. Our choice to be polite or impolite, honest or dishonest has little or no impact on the script that the service rep is reading.

So what’s the answer? Do we abandon business ethics and try to take what we think we deserve, perhaps by manipulating customer service scripts? Do we try and end-run around customer service like I did with Kitchenaid? Or do we take our business elsewhere and then badmouth the offending company to our friends and on our blogs? What do you guys think? What are the right ethics for dealing with corporations?

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