Ben.Edelman.Harvard.Chinese.Food.jpgBen Edelman Harvard Chinese Food

Last week, Harvard Business School associate professor Ben Edelman ordered take-out from a family-run Chinese restaurant outside of Boston. Realizing he was overcharged by $4, he contacted the business via Email.

What ensued has been widely reported in the national media (if you haven’t read the full Email exchange, I urge you to do so). Employing legal jargon coupled with escalating threats to contact local authorities, professor Edelman at first demanded a triple penalty ($12), which he then jacked up to a 50% refund. While no doubt believing he was in the right and fighting for his due, anybody with eyes can see this guy for what he really is.

A bully.

As a small business owner myself, I know firsthand that every day is a grind: the stresses of nurturing and growing a client base, marketing, administration, managing operations, cash flow, etc. – and yes, dealing with rude customers – can be exhausting. Especially in today’s world, brand reputation and economic stability means everything to a small business.

And guys like Edelman know this.

Read the Email exchange again, and look how he seeks to confuse and intimidate the restaurant manager with legalese, threats to alert authorities and other actions. He’s not doing this because he’s fighting the good fight against bad business practices and false advertising – he’s doing it because it works.

The scariest thing that can happen to a small business is the prospect of a highly disruptive and potentially fatal blow, be it in the form of an expensive lawsuit, heavy fine or negative publicity – not to mention the requisite time and effort required to mitigate any of the above. It’d be like a bomb going off, and it’s a terrifying thought for anybody who’s busting their hump just trying to make it out there.

Edelman knows that the other guy most likely doesn’t have a law degree and Ph.D. in economics from Harvard like he does, let alone teach at the business school. It wasn’t enough for him to try and squeeze more than he was overcharged for from a mom-and-pop business; he had to try and humiliate the guy by proving just how smart he is, show off all of his knowledge, connections and ways he could make this guy’s life miserable, because what was he going to do about it? Was he going to risk his family’s business over a $12 refund? Of course not – he’s going to pay me, then I’ll never see him again.

Well, that’s NOT exactly what happened, is it?

I am so incredibly impressed with how the restaurant manager handled this. Not only does he employ unbelievable restraint in each of his responses, emphatically apologizing for his customer’s experience while stating exactly which steps he will take to make things right (far, far better than I would have been able to do, by the way), but he doesn’t bow to Edelman’s repeated and escalating threats/intimidations. The coup de grace of course was releasing the entire Email exchange to the press – an extremely bold decision, considering a guy like Edelman would no doubt go after him for slander, defamation of character and lord knows what else.

Disgusted as I was by seeing this – and trying to imagine how I as a small business owner would respond if facing a similar situation – there is a broader issue here which makes my skin crawl, and that is the fact that this guy is a professor at America’s most elite business school. What does it say about the values being instilled in future corporate leaders, that THIS is the type of example they should follow? That the powerful can intimidate and exploit those who are economically vulnerable, or legally naïve?

If any good is to come of this grotesque incident, I hope it is that it serves as a wake-up call to those who might utilize such bullying tactics in the marketplace – be it with other companies or with Chinese takeout – and realize it might not work so well after all.

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