Q: Can I lie about my current salary on a job interview?
A: It’s certainly tempting to exaggerate in the hopes of getting bumped up to the next pay bracket. And about one in six job seekers has done just that, according to a study done by the career website Vault.com. But you shouldn’t, says John Hasnas, an associate professor of business ethics at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C. “Even though you don’t work for the person conducting the interview, you’re still obligated to be ethical,” he says. “Plus, how would you feel if the employer lied to you about the salary?” Also, he adds, it’s inappropriate to ask someone to make a judgment based on false information or suggest that a company needs to pay an inflated amount to retain your services.
If that’s not enough incentive to tell the truth, realize this: Chances are you won’t get away with lying, says Patrice Rice, the president of Patrice & Associates, a recruitment agency in Dunkirk, Maryland. Most businesses verify new-hire information using W-2 forms or pay stubs, and if an employer discovers even a modest embellishment, that shiny new offer could be rescinded. (If you include a bonus or a projected raise in your quoted figure, mention it so the math adds up.)
To get more zeros added to the end of your salary without bending any ethical rules, explain the circumstances that may have reduced your income—a pay freeze, an organization that doesn’t pay the market rate—and why you deserve a jump. Rice suggests you say, “I’m looking for career growth and hoping that additional responsibilities will bring more earning potential. I hope this is that opportunity.” You’ll enjoy the bigger paycheck even more when it comes with good karma.
Q: If my child doesn’t go to college, must I give her the money I saved for it?
A: There are a few things to think about if you’re in this situation. First, if you make it clear to your child that the savings were intended for academic use only, then you can ethically keep the money—although ideally you would have previously disclosed the purpose of the funds to her, says Robert Steele, the director of the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University, in Greencastle, Indiana. But bear in mind that if your plan for the money was to give your child a good start in life, it could still help her achieve that.
For example, she could use it to buy equipment for a vocation she wants to pursue. Just be sure to look into the financial ramifications of turning over the money, says Wayne Van Heuvelen, the president of Horizon Consulting and Investment Services, in Des Moines. If the money is in a 529 plan, a tax-advantaged savings account, you could get dinged for taking it out for purposes other than paying for college, junior college, or trade school.
“Unqualified withdrawals in Iowa, for example, carry a tax on the contribution amount and interest earnings, plus a 10 percent penalty at the federal level,” says Van Heuvelen. (Rules vary, so check your fund’s website.) And remember: Although your daughter may not want to attend college now, she might feel differently in a few years. “Hang on to the cash for a bit, and continue having discussions about school,” says Diane Swanson, the chair of the Business Ethics Initiative at Kansas State University, in Manhattan, Kansas. What if she never uses the money? Usually you can transfer the funds tax-free to other family members who are pursuing higher education.
Q: Can I bring friends to the pool at the hotel where I’m staying even though they’re not guests?
A: This is a reasonable request, but to avoid making the wrong kind of splash, clear it with the hotel first, says Diane Swanson, a professor of business ethics at Kansas State University, in Manhattan, Kansas. Most likely the hotel will agree, unless it’s peak season and poolside real estate is at a premium. You’re a paying customer, and they want to keep you happy—plus, extra bodies often result in additional food and drink sales.
To remain in the staff’s good graces, ask about the hotel policy when making your reservation. And keep in mind that you’ll have better luck getting the green light for one or two people than for your entire extended, Marco Polo-playing family.
Another reason to keep your swim date on the up-and-up? According to Nancy Kern, an assistant vice president of marketing for Destination Hotels & Resorts, some hotels ask people for their room numbers before they hit the pool deck or request that nonguests buy a day pass for privileges (often about $25)—which would make it a bit difficult for your friends to dive right in.
Q: Can I bring my own food and drink into a movie theater?
A: Checking out the concession-stand offerings is often a total horror show: Six dollars for gummy bears? Are they made of pure gold?! But sky-high prices don’t justify sneaking in treats, says David Callahan, the editor of CheatingCulture.com, an online ethics resource. “As a guest, you should obey the rules of the establishment,” he says. A bar that serves food wouldn’t allow you to haul in your own nachos to eat with its margaritas. Similarly, cinemas expect you to cough up for their goodies when you’re on their turf.
It could be argued that the theaters are guilty of extorting a captive audience. In this age of $10 tickets, going to the movies isn’t a cheap proposition to begin with. Also, “it’s apparent that theaters mark up popcorn and other snacks to near criminal levels,” says Jeff Yeager, the author of The Cheapskate Next Door ($13, amazon.com). But it’s worth remembering that cinemas make about 40 percent of their revenue from the sale of food and drinks. “If everyone brought their own treats from home, the price of tickets could increase even more dramatically,” says Callahan. Talk about scary.
Q: Can I use my student ID to get discounts even though I’m no longer in school?
A: Like many alums, you may look back wistfully on all those half-price pitchers of beer and cheap museum tickets you scored during college, courtesy of your student ID. Who can blame you? But no matter how much you miss those deals, it’s not ethical to pretend to be someone you’re not. Student discounts are designed to serve a demographic that typically lacks extra spending money.
By trying to save a few bucks as a graduate, you run the risk of hurting actual students in the process. Proprietors that discover their policy is being abused may change or eliminate it altogether, denying it to those who need it, says Jen Day Shaw, an assistant vice president and a dean of students at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
If you really want a bargain, just ask for one. “Say, ‘I have this ID, but I’m no longer a student. Would you be able to give me a lower price, anyway?’ ” says Robert Steele, a professor of journalism ethics at DePauw University, in Greencastle, Indiana. With any luck, the merchant will cut you a (price) break, regardless of your enrollment status.
Q: Is it acceptable to leave different amounts of money to my children when I die?
A: It’s a touchy topic, but, yes, you can divide your estate however you wish, according to Lauren Bloom, an ethics consultant in Springfield, Virginia. There are plenty of valid reasons to leave more to some of your offspring than to others. Maybe one has a brood of five to support while another is childless, or one makes six figures while another barely scratches rent together. Additionally, says Bloom, “it’s perfectly ethical to consider your individual relationships with your children when divvying up the goods.” Perhaps one child helped support you for a time, so you feel as if she deserves more.
That said, just because it’s ethical to divide your estate as you please doesn’t mean that it will be easy. Hurt feelings and family feuds may ensue unless you’re up-front with your children—ideally at the time you draw up your will. “Have a conversation or write them a letter explaining why you made this decision,” says Teresa McDowell, a family therapist and the department chair of counseling psychology at Lewis & Clark College, in Portland, Oregon. Reassure them that it’s a financial consideration and that you still love them, no matter what. And remember: Money isn’t the only valuable thing that you can bequeath to your children. “Give meaningful objects, like family heirlooms and mementos, so that every child feels cared for,” says McDowell. That way, your final message will be a loving one.
Q: Can I check up on my spouse’s credit-card and bank-account balances?
A: Well, that depends. Do you suspect your spouse of acting in a fiscally irresponsible manner and running up massive debts? Or, worse, committing fraud or some other misconduct? If so, says Anita L. Allen, a professor of ethics and law at the University of Pennsylvania, then it’s acceptable to pry.
If he maxes out a credit card on a joint account, for example, you’re as legally responsible as he is for paying off the debt. But if you’re just curious about his spending, you must ask his permission before you peek at his accounts. Hopefully, he’ll be open to this.
And if he balks? Don’t think that you can just help yourself to his online statements, even if you know his log-in information. “Ethically, you have the right to know, but using his password to access the information without his consent is a form of identity theft,” says Allen.
Q: If I’m invited to a merchandise party at a friend’s house, do I have to buy something?
A: The first question is: Should you go at all? If you know there’s no way that you’ll buy another piece of Tupperware (check out the company’s website beforehand to determine what merch might be available), skip the event. But if there’s a chance you might buy something, the only rule is to attend with an open mind.
“If you go with the attitude ‘If there’s anything I like, I will buy it. If not, I won’t,’ that is very different than if you go with the intention of not buying anything,” says Marianne Jennings, a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University in Tempe and the author of The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse (St. Martin’s Press, $26, amazon.com).
You are not obligated to purchase anything. If you choose not to buy, simply thank your host for her hospitality—no elaborate apologies about budget tightening or overcrowded cabinets required. It’s not always comfortable to be the only one not pulling out a checkbook, but you have no reason to feel guilty.