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Question 125: May a woman take a job handling complaints evasively?

After three years as a secretary in the main office of this city’s largest retailer of home furnishings, I have been offered a position handling customer complaints and adjustments at one of the company’s stores. I would like to take the job, because it would be nearer to where I live and my take-home pay would be about thirty percent higher.

The company’s procedure for handling complaints has four stages, but my job would include only the first two. At first, the customer gets a very cordial hearing, but at the same time every effort is made to put him or her off. In most cases, the customer is advised to study any instructions that came with the item and/or told that the apparent defect or malfunction very likely is normal (which, I have been assured, is statistically correct). If it seems serious, the advice is to seek an adjustment directly from the manufacturer under the warranty. Customers who persist are asked to come in with their paperwork and fill out a form so that “we can look into the problem.” But the form is simply filed away, and no action is taken unless the customer presses the complaint. About half do not.

At the second stage, customers who actually press complaints are asked what would satisfy them, then offered a minimal adjustment. The amount never exceeds the company’s profit. There is no attempt to judge the merits of a complaint unless that offer is refused and the customer shows real determination—for example, by threatening legal action. That leads to the third stage, where my superior from the main office would step in, examine the complaint and the facts, and try to satisfy the customer with no more than he or she would be likely to win in court. If that fails, the fourth and final stage is to ask the company’s legal counsel for advice on minimizing total anticipated costs, including legal fees.

The rationale for all this is that it is economically necessary to be somewhat evasive in handling complaints. They told me that many complaints are either caused by the customer’s failure to read and follow directions, or are unreasonable or fraudulent. It is the manufacturer’s responsibility, not ours, to resolve any major problems resulting from defects in materials and workmanship, they said. They also assured me that customers whose complaints have substance are likely to press them. Since not only satisfying every demand for an adjustment but even examining every complaint’s merits would be too expensive, the first two stages try either to get the customer to drop the matter or, if necessary, resolve it at minimal cost. That would be my job. I have been assured that this procedure has kept litigation to a minimum and resulted in very few interventions on customers’ behalf by the state’s Consumer Affairs Division. Management thinks this indicates the policy is reasonably fair.

Do you think the procedure is sufficiently fair? Even if it is not fair, could I take the job anyway?


This question calls for application of the norm excluding lying and judgment in accord with the Golden Rule. Though businesses must find efficient ways of dealing with ill-grounded complaints, they must not lie and must be fair to customers with legitimate complaints. The company’s procedure for handling complaints is deceptive and unfair to customers with legitimate complaints. Management’s argument in defense of the morally flawed procedure is an instance of consequentialism used to rationalize injustice and lying. The job could not be done without deceiving customers and intending to induce some of them to accept unjust settlements, and it often would be an occasion of the sin of lying. So, the questioner may not accept it.

The reply could be along the following lines:

No doubt, many complaints are due to customers’ failure to read and follow directions, their unreasonable expectations, or their dishonesty. In establishing policies for handling complaints, the managers of any business therefore must find ways to limit the cost of dealing with those that are ill-grounded in order to safeguard the interests of other participants in the business—other customers, owners, employees, and so on. Still, a morally acceptable method for handling complaints must exclude lying and extend fair treatment to customers, including the less determined ones, with legitimate complaints.

The managers of a business should regard their relationship with customers as cooperative. Authentic cooperation involves mutual understanding, which depends on communication, and that, in turn, requires mutual trust and candor. So, a procedure for handling customers’ complaints should involve honest communication, and its stages should facilitate effective cooperation.331 The description of a procedure meeting these standards could be made available to anyone who needs to file a complaint. But some elements of your employer’s approach purposely exclude cooperation with customers in resolving complaints, and the process works only because customers do not realize they are being manipulated.

For upright people, fair is fair. That management regards its policy’s success in forestalling legal problems as evidence that it is reasonably fair is a clear sign that the managers regard fairness toward customers, not as a moral requirement, but merely as part of the problem to be dealt with. Holding that view of fairness, management argues that, since its method of handling complaints has sufficed for its own interests, it is reasonably fair. While you would not be asking for moral advice if you were not a conscientious person, management’s view seems to have influenced even your thinking, since you ask whether the procedure for handling complaints is sufficiently fair.

Still, I think the real question behind your inquiry is: Does the company’s way of handling complaints measure up to moral standards, including the Golden Rule? The answer is no. Anyone can see why by imagining himself or herself in the place of an unassertive, trusting, and uninformed customer with a well-grounded, urgent, and serious complaint.

First, the procedure is deceptive. Saying that an apparent defect or malfunction “very likely” is normal would be truthful if the facts about the particular case warranted it. But when the only basis for making the statement is statistical, it is intended to convey what may well be false. Again, when customers who persist are told to come in and fill out a form so their problem can be looked into, they are led to believe that step will initiate cooperation in resolving the problem; yet the form is filed away and nothing is done unless the customer presses the complaint.

Second, the procedure discriminates among customers, favoring those who are knowledgeable, articulate, and aggressive. Customers must persist and press their complaints to obtain any sort of settlement. The initial settlement offer, not being based on the complaint’s merits, inevitably will fall short of fairness in some cases, but only customers who threaten legal action or otherwise show real determination obtain a review.

Third, the procedure plainly is not meant to give customers their due, but to minimize the cost of placating them sufficiently to forestall trouble. Consideration of the merits of complaints is delayed to cut costs; only customers who pose a threat to the company’s self-interest are likely to receive satisfaction; complaints, regardless of their merits, are met with resistance; and the prospect of losing a lawsuit, in which an injustice could be proved, is the standard used in resolving even the most persistent customers’ undeniably legitimate complaints.

The defense of this policy offered by management exemplifies the use of consequentialism to rationalize injustice and lying. The assumption is that treating customers fairly would not be cost effective (it would be “too expensive”), and so profitability, presumed to be a good end, is taken to justify the bad means of manipulating customers. The procedure for handling complaints meets the company’s requirements because the deception involved often succeeds and, if it does not, customers whose dissatisfaction would be likely to damage the business usually are satisfied. While the complaints of some customers manifest their own carelessness, unreasonableness, and/or dishonesty, those problems, which have led management to adopt this procedure, obviously cannot justify following it in dealing with reasonable, honest, and careful customers with well-grounded complaints.

May you accept the job despite the system’s unfairness? No. You could not succeed without intending to lead customers, by means of the deceptive procedure, to accept settlements that in some cases certainly would be less than fair. Moreover, in some of those cases the matter will be grave. Then too, in carrying out your role, you often would be tempted to lie, since some people would ask you to explain why their complaints were not being dealt with more straightforwardly, and a truthful answer would undermine the procedure.

If your present secretarial work does not require you to participate in the company’s wrongdoing, you need not resign. Still, you should consider whether your other responsibilities would permit you to risk your job or give it up. If so, you should perhaps explain to your superiors why you are not accepting the promotion and urge them to adopt a fair procedure for handling complaints in place of the present one. If that seems pointless or has no effect, consider trying to stop the injustice—for example, by reporting what is going on to appropriate public officials, calling it to the attention of consumer groups, or urging the public media to investigate. Indeed, even if you dare not risk your job, you might communicate anonymously or confidentially with the state’s Consumer Affairs Division or some other agency that could put a stop to the wrongdoing.

331. Such a procedure also is necessary to retain or regain customers with complaints; see Rodney L. Cron, Assuring Customer Satisfaction: A Guide for Business and Industry (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1974), especially the treatment of the sources and solutions to customer problems (90–108).