Volume 48, Issue 8- August 2013

The Business

Inconsequential Conscience-Clearing

by Lyle R. Hill

I answered the phone half way through its first ring and salutations were promptly exchanged.

“Jim,” I began, “I was just getting ready to call you but I guess you beat me to it.”

The truth was that I had been trying to get up the courage to call Jim for the last couple of hours. You see, I had promised him a bid on a job known as the Apex Project and I had written the bid date down incorrectly. I thought I still had three days to put a number together but had found out earlier that morning that the bids had been due at 10:00 a.m. … today!

“Really, Lyle? What were you going to call me about?”

Jim was a mid-size general contractor and while he wasn’t a huge customer, he was a steady one. He was good for three to four jobs a year and was easy to work with, too. Even more importantly, he paid his bills on time.

“Well, Jim, I was going to call you to talk about the Apex Project.”

“What a coincidence, Lyle. That’s the reason I’m calling you ... to talk about Apex.”

Here it comes, I thought, and I deserved whatever criticism he was about to hurl my way. I had broken a promise, and in business as in life, broken promises are rarely, if ever, properly or fully mended.

“Lyle,” he continued, “do you remember when we talked about how important the Apex Project was to me, and how I really needed you to come through with a solid, competitive bid, and how you promised me you would personally see to it that I got the best number possible and all that went with it?”

“Yes Jim, I remember.”

“And do you also remember, Lyle, that you told me that you would give me a price for the job that would be rock-bottom low and virtually untouchable?”

“Yes Jim, I remember.”

“Well Lyle, you kinda disappointed me and I’m a little surprised because you have always been a man of your word.”

He had me. I had no excuse. Every word he said was accurate and I felt about as bad as I could possibly feel. It was a nice, simple, clean job and putting a tight estimate together for it wouldn’t have been all that difficult. But before I could even get a word in, he pounded on.

“And so here I am, looking at your price and starting to wonder if you really put the effort into this thing that you had promised. You see Lyle, you’re almost 18 percent higher than the low bidder and I just don’t see how you can be so high on a job that you said was about as straightforward as a job could get. In fact Lyle, you are the highest bid that I received on the job. I told you I had a tight budget on your portion of the project and you told me not to worry, that you would come through for me?”

Wait a minute … did he say he was disappointed with my price? What price? I didn’t quote the thing. What was he talking about?

“Jim, I don’t know what to say other than I’m sorry … I guess.”

“Well that’s not good enough Mr. Hill! I need you on this job because I have an incredibly tight schedule and I am counting on you to be a man of honor. I really won’t use anyone else on this so I am going to send you a contract for $68,000 which is the number I have to hit. And I fully expect you to do a first-class job for me and to get it done on time. That’s it. No further discussion needed. I’ll have the purchase agreement dropped off at your office before the end of the day. Good bye.”

I was baffled and struggled with whether or not I should call Jim back and come clean. After a fair amount of reflection, I came to the conclusion that Jim must have somehow become confused and assumed someone else’s bid was mine. But either way, he was counting on me. He needed me to come through, to be a man of honor. So without a moment’s delay, I rolled out the drawings and specs for the Apex job and went to work. Now in reality, the job probably should have gone for about $75-77,000 but I felt terrible about not keeping my promise and somehow I felt obligated to make this work for Jim … to get it done and put it behind us. So we squeezed a couple of our better suppliers and worked a little harder than usual to get the job done right and on time. We didn’t make much on the project but we didn’t lose anything either, and I felt good about keeping the customer happy. But my conscience was haunted for a long time. I had not been truthful with Jim. In reality, I had failed to keep my promise and had also allowed him to believe something that was simply not true. And isn’t that really the same as lying?

Many years passed and after Jim retired, we maintained a bit of a casual friendship and would meet from time to time for breakfast. I have a handful of old customers and suppliers that I continue to see even though we haven’t done any real business together for some time now. So at one of these breakfast meetings I decided to come clean on the Apex Project after all of this time. I reminded Jim about the job and then told him that I had never really bid the job at all, that I always felt kinda bad about not being a bit more truthful and that it was time to clear my conscience about the whole thing. He looked at me for a while and then spoke.

“Lyle, I knew you didn’t bid the job and I also knew that you would feel pretty bad about it. The job was going to be a tough one for me and I needed to get some dollars out of it somewhere. So I called you and threw a pretty low number at you hoping I could guilt you into taking it. Which you did.”

“And if I hadn’t brought this up just now, you were never going to tell me this, Jim?” “What difference does it make, Lyle? Although if you have cleared your conscience after all this time, I guess I’m happy for you.”

“And Jim, now that you have cleared yours, do you also feel better?” “Lyle, I was a general contractor at the time … I didn’t have a conscience.”


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