You never know where your next ethics lesson might come from.
The principal at my children’s elementary school likes to make students think about ethical situations from time to time, and found a good lesson about integrity in the form of a chapter from the 1974 children’s novel, “Soup,” by Robert Newton Peck (who is perhaps better known for writing “A Day No Pigs Would Die”).
My kids relayed the story as told by the principal, and, having read earlier in the day about a life insurance producer being indicted on fraud charges, it struck me as being strangely appropriate for even a much more mature audience of insurance and financial advisors.
During a school assembly, the principal told the story of when Robert, the book’s narrator, and his close friend “Soup,” a rather mischievous schemer, tried to pull one over on someone in order to get something they really wanted but had not earned.
The book is set in small-town 1930s Vermont, where the author also grew up, and deals with the daily lives of the main characters. Soup is described as being well meaning, but is constantly coming up with elaborate plans that invariably land him and Robert in trouble. Robert is more sensible but less wily, and frequently finds himself being conned into going along with Soup’s ploys.
Such is the case in Chapter 5, titled “Cheating Mr. Diskin.”
Soup and Rob need twenty cents to go to the picture show in town, and will be heartbroken if they miss it. Worried that the tin foil they were going to recycle at Mr. Diskin’s wouldn’t net enough for both of them to get into the movies, Soup comes up with the idea to put a stone inside the tin foil to make it heavier and thus worth more.
Rob tells Soup it’s “wrong” and that they shouldn’t do it, but their immediate desire to go to the movies ends up outweighing committing the fraud. They put a stone in the tinfoil, and tried to make themselves feel better by thinking they were only cheating him out of a few cents. Mr. Diskin, who had always been nothing but kind to them, weighed the “weighted” tinfoil and went inside to get money to pay the boys. When he came back he gave them three things: two dimes, and the stone they had hidden in the tinfoil.
They got the money they needed to go to the movies, but at what price, really?
That’s what makes this a good lesson for children, who as part of growing up have the need to examine their actions and choices, and well as the consequences of those actions and choices. Same goes for the professional development of an insurance or financial advisor.
Suppose you really wanted to hit a production number to qualify for an incentive trip, and knew you could do so by steering a client toward a certain product even if you were aware a slightly better fit was available? Or recommended a product primarily because it pays a higher commission? Or advised an unsuspecting client to include within their policy something they don’t really need—an unnecessary rider, perhaps—much like Robert and Soup aimed to take advantage of Mr. Diskin?
Except that instead of disappointing Mr. Diskin and having to deal with that guilt, you may endure the guilt plus the wrath of an E&O claim.
Whenever you hear about an advisor being under investigation for taking advantage of a client, it should remind you of your own personal commitment to ethics and the importance of continually earning and maintaining your reputation as a trusted advisor.