An Ethics Test That Many Failed – How Would You Do?

testby Michael Friedlander, Featured Contributor

Acting ethically is to understand the difference between what you have the right to do and what is the right thing to do.”

Justice Potter Stewart

A Starting Point…

I’VE CALLED MY TEST “The Subway Test.” I originally called it “The Rolex Test”—until I realized that Rolex might not be overjoyed with that name. So, I decided, “The Subway Test” it would be…

Before I even tell you about the Test, you should know that some our finest and brightest have consistently failed to pass the Test—and that they’ve done so quite spectacularly. These folks, incidentally, have included some of our smartest and highest paid executives, attorneys, accountants, bankers, financiers and academics.

You should know too that many of those who failed the Test were also distinguished alumni of some of our most prestigious colleges. In fairness, some taking the test might have inadvertently skipped the class in college that might have helped them pass the Test. I’m sure that’s what happened…

Anyway, this stunning failure of so many smart folks has kept me scratching my head in some bemusement. The only good news about this is that it might perhaps explain my increasingly thinning hair. Apart from that, there was no good news of any kind coming from the stunning failure of many who took the Test.

So, here’s the Test for you to take…

And once you’ve taken it, I might just offer you some help in passing the test—or maybe I won‘t…

[message type=”custom” width=”100%” start_color=”#F0F0F0 ” end_color=”#F0F0F0 ” border=”#BBBBBB” color=”#333333″]

The Subway Test

You’ve just got off the subway…

You are making your way to the escalator that will take you up to street level.

Without any warning, your progress is blocked. A seedy looking guy brandishing a small velvet-covered case is standing in your way. As you stop, he flips open the case revealing dozens of quite expensive watches. As he pulls a Rolex from his case, he breaks the silence—

“Wanna buy a Rolex?” he asks…

As you look at it, you gotta admit that it looks just like the real deal. As he hands it to you, though, it’s as light as a feather. Immediately, you know this ain’t the real deal.

You now begin to think that it might be fun to fool your friends into thinking you actually bought a really expensive Rolex. And, if you never take it off and hand it to them, they’ll never know…

“How much?” you ask your new friend…

“$25,” he responds…

“It’s a deal,” you say. You then exchange some crisp bills for the watch…[/message]

An Initial Easy Question …

Were you scammed when you bought the obviously fake Rolex? The answer is “Hell, no…” You were simply buying a fake Rolex knowing it was a fake… No scam… Not even close…

[message type=”custom” width=”100%” start_color=”#F0F0F0 ” end_color=”#F0F0F0 ” border=”#BBBBBB” color=”#333333″]

The Test Continues …

Later that day, you show your new watch to a friend, who we’ll call “Bob.”

You know that Bob is experiencing some difficult financial times. In fact, you know that Bob doesn’t have a pot to pee in. You also know Bob has rent to pay and an ex-wife and children to support. And then, sadly, you know he’s also developed a habit that he can’t shake: Occasionally, he gets hungry—and he needs to eat… 

You’ve already lent him money, but you’ve written off any possibility that he’ll be able to repay you before your children turn 65 and become entitled to social security. Your eldest child has just turned 21…

Bob tells you he’s in the process of raising money for his new project. He asks if you’d be interested in investing. Without laughing out loud, you politely decline…

Bob’s gaze then shifts to your new watch. He’s intrigued. He asks if he can borrow it for a day or two. He tells you that he’s having dinner that evening with a prospective investor who he wants to impress.

You sympathize with him and agree—knowing instinctively this is probably a mistake…

And because life is strange, when Bob tells you the name of the friend he’s having dinner with, you discover you happen to know him well. His name is Hal…

You tell Bob that Hal is a really good guy and that you really like and trust him. Bob is excited and then invites you to join them for dinner. He explains that Hal might be more comfortable with you at the dinner. With an uneasy feeling, you agree—even though your instincts are screaming out that this might be another mistake…

At dinner, Bob shows Hal his new watch. He’s eager to impress Hal that he’s a man of substance,.

“Ain’t this a beauty?” Bob gushes.

“Y’know,” he continues as he smiles at you, “Michael and I went to Tiffany’s a couple of days ago. When I saw this particular Rolex, I just couldn’t resist it—even though it cost $30,000. Paid cash.”

Hal is impressed and says he loves the watch. Fortunately, he doesn’t ask Bob to take it off so that he can take a closer look…

Through this conversation, though, Hal does look at you. And you return his gaze. You say nothing—absolutely nothing…

Maybe it was the wine. Maybe it was the watch. Hal’s attitude to Bob begins to warm up. By the end of the evening, convinced that Bob is someone of substance and feeling comfort that you know Bob, Hal announces that he will indeed invest in Bob’s new business. 

Needless to say, Bob’s scheme was a scam and Hal loses his investment…[/message]

Here’s The Question—and The Test:

First, the question:

Did you become a co-conspirator with Bob when you remained silent as Bob claimed that you were together when he bought the watch for $30,000?

Now, the test:

Looking back, would you have spoken up when your friend Bob lied about you being together when he bought the watch?

If you’re expecting answers from me to the question, I think the answer is a no-brainer. In my world, you became a co-conspirator the instant you said nothing.

As for the test, if you failed to speak up when the lie was told, you’ve failed the test…

Postscript …

In a recent article/blog, “Who Can We Trust? The Extraordinary Value Of Fairy Tales,” I wrote about the value of fairy tales in helping us to decide just whom we can trust. I wrote about how fairy tales sometimes weave together the truth and fantasy so skillfully that it’s sometimes difficult to decide where the truth ends and fantasy begins.

To illustrate this, I then actually create my own fairy tale…

I wrote about a magical kingdom that experienced cheating, lying, corruption on a grand scale—and how some very prominent professionals did and said nothing as those around them cheated, lied and acted corruptly.

In every one of those examples, skilled and experienced people knew what was happening around them. They saw the cheating, lying and corruption—and they chose to look away. Sadly, this part of my fairy tale was the truth…

Faced with a choice between their self-interest in making money by ignoring what was happening around them or doing something that would protect others from losing money, some of our finest and brightest all chose their personal self-interest.

Each of those folks failed the Subway Test…

Remarkably, each was someone who was highly respected in his or her field. Each was quite successful. Each was even regarded as a role model by admirers. Each was an alumni of a prestigious college…

I pointed out that if anyone tried to tell you that those close to Enron, Bernard Madoff, or the Atlanta school teachers, or those involved in the sub-prime mortgage fiasco, or FIFA didn’t know exactly what was happening around them, I would have a bridge you might be interested in buying—but, of course, only for cash…

A Final Question:

What on earth can we do to get people to do the right thing and to stop looking away and remaining silent as they witness lying, cheating and corruption?

Michael Friedlander
IN 1979, prior to arriving in Los Angeles, Michael was an attorney in Johannesburg, South Africa. After leaving South Africa, he worked for an international trading company in its London and Zurich offices... After moving to Los Angeles, he was admitted to the California Bar. Since then, his law work has focused on assisting clients in the negotiating and structuring of their national and international business transactions… In the late 1990s, he ventured from the dark side to explore life on the bright side—the world of business. He was then the CEO of three international companies. In 2008, he ventured back to the dark side, where he always belonged... He has written “Detecting the Scam: Nelson Mandela’s Gift,” which highlights how moral authority, common sense and negotiating skills can help detect and avoid scams. Has also written "Come Dance With Me," a diary about life, laughter, finding balance. His latest project is the ""
Notify of
Andrea Arena
Andrea Arena

More important than speaking up when Bob told Hal you were together when he bought the watch, you shouldn’t have let Bob borrow the watch and you should have interceded when you heard Hal was meeting with Bob. Considering Bob’s desperate situation, you suspected that Bob’s new venture was not destined for success. Why would you allow your friend Hal to walk into that lion’s den?

Michael Friedlander
Michael Friedlander

Couldn’t agree more with you, Andrea… :-)

Carol Anderson

Okay, I’ll confess – my heart told me to protect Bob, not Hal. Why? Perhaps I hope that this time, he’ll make it and then the ruse will never be discovered. But I probably know that’s not the case. Do I proceed to embarrass him? Perhaps I tell Hall offline, as a caution. Bob will never know I was the one who caused his deal to fall through.
I think I’ve just talked myself into enabling, which is probably what has happened in Bob’s life all along. Dang, this is a really good scenario.
So to answer your question, we need courage from those who lead us to show the right way. We have a spectacularly large void there.
In defense of my own results, I’d not have bought the watch – I really don’t like to come off as something I’m not.
Neat post Michael – thanks!

Jane Anderson

Carol, your comment “I really don’t like to come off as something I’m not.” Of all the things in life I aspire to, this is NOT one of them. My need to be authentic has kept me from doing some things I could have done, but it has also prevented me from doing more that shouldn’t.

Carol Anderson

Yes, Jane – you’re right on both counts! But I’m glad it is who I am. I figured it out a little late in life, but at least I figured it out ;)

Jane Anderson

I agree with Andrea 100%! The first fail started when you didn’t tell Hal the watch was a fake. And the incident spirals quickly downward from there. Andrea took care of the mistakes, so I’ll answer your final question. What can we do to get people to do the right thing? We all know we can’t legislate morality. We can’t force people to be honest. We can’t force truth telling on others. We have a million laws, all of which were created to keep people from doing the wrong thing. As soon as a loophole is discovered, we need another law. Or so we’re told. Here is what WE can do to get PEOPLE to do the right thing. #1 – look inside ourselves because that’s where the next action starts. Doing the right thing starts with me. It starts with my opportunity to do the right thing then doing it so well and so often people around me want to emulate doing the right thing too. #2 – Show people, prove to them, the benefits of stepping up to defend what is right and stop fearing ridicule if they do. We live in a broken world. We will never repair the whole, but we can make a difference in our little sphere. If you follow social media, you will know the tentacles of our sphere are broad. Be someone that others want to emulate – do the right thing. “I can’t change the world, but I can make a difference one attitude at a time.”

Debbie Ruston

Carol made an important distinction….”we need courage from those who lead us to show the right way.” I would suggest taking this a step further…be the leader that shows the right way. The more we take a stand for taking the higher road, the more we inspire others to do the shame…

Steve McKay
Steve McKay

The problem really begins when you decide to try to fool your friends into thinking you have something your really do not. That you perhaps are someone you really are not (the guy with the fancy and expensive Rolex). Even to the point of thinking if you don’t take it off “they will never know”. So already this is not a harmless prank on your part but in fact a way you are already making decisions about how you want others to view you “if you can get away with it” . If you had been true to yourself at the start then you wouldn’t be in this mess.

Jack Lehrer
Jack Lehrer

I am amazed that no one felt that buying a watch from a seedy looking individual in the subway was wrong. Did it cross anyone’s mind that these watches could have been stolen. Were taxes paid on the purchase? Was a receipt given? Ethically the downward spiral started then. Should the watch have been lent knowing full well the reason Bob wanted to borrow it? Of course not. Should something have been said when implicated in the lie? Absolutely, but the fact is that nothing that was done that day was ethical. Ethics don’t have a price tag. Whether for a nickel or five hundred thousand dollars we should act ethically.


Stop it before it starts… I don’t wear a watch; I have an impressive, fancy smartphone that keeps time for me. Perhaps, though, if I were more concerned with sporting flashy artifacts to project an illusion of “success”, then I would reap rewards of riches. No thanks; I’ll just be the best REAL me I can be.

Tom-Scott Gordon

Neither party should have been in New York in the first place. All were scammed.


Powerful voices from around the globe that speak to our shared human experience. May they inspire you and give you great hope.



Must Read





Email List Login