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by Bruce Hamm


I once took my 13-year old son and his friend on a camping trip during their Spring Break from school. My son's friend brought along a test that he gives to many different people. The author remains anonymous. This is a child's test so be prepared for its format and content. You might be asking at this point, what does this have to do with ethics? Keep reading and I will answer that question.

In my eight years of military service for the US Navy, I heard the phrase "RTFQ" many times. As an enlisted person, I had to take tests to advance or earn promotions. This is a rather salty comment so I have sanitized it a bit for this article. RTFQ stands for "Read the F**king Question". Look at the following questions (the answers are at the end of this article) and maybe RTFQ will make itself apparent. If not, I will explain both what RTFQ has to do with this list and how it all relates to ethics.

  1. How can you arrange for two people to stand on the same piece of newspaper and yet be unable to touch each other without stepping off the newspaper?

  2. How many 3-cent stamps are there in a dozen?

  3. A rope ladder hangs over the side of a ship. The rungs are one foot apart and the ladder is 12 feet long. The tide is rising at four inches an hour. How long will it take before the first four rungs of the ladder are underwater?

  4. Which would you rather have, a gallon jar full of nickels or a gallon jar half full of dimes and why?

  5. Steve has three piles of sand and Mike has four piles of sand. All together, how many do they have?

  6. In which sport are the shoes made entirely of metal?

  7. If the Vice-president of the United States should die, who would be the president?

  8. How can you throw a golf ball with all your might and, without hitting a wall or any other obstruction, have the ball stop and come right back to you?

  9. According to most US state laws, the attempt to commit a certain crime is punishable, but actually committing the crime is not. What is the crime?

  10. Find the ordinary English word that can be formed from all these letters: PNLLEEEESSSSS

  11. How many times can you subtract 2 from the numeral 9?

  12. If you take two apples from three apples, how many apples will you have?

  13. If you are standing on a hard floor, how can you drop an egg three feet without breaking the egg?

If it is not apparent, RTFQ relates to this test because the questions are not obvious. One must read them carefully to understand what the question really asks. Adults asked us in the US many similar questions in lower grades in school. Therefore, we have built expectations into our understanding of the questions.

How does this relate to ethics? We need to RTFQ when investigating reports of ethical misconduct. In other words and because of the delicate nature of business ethics, we need to first understand the true nature of a particular report before we can adequately investigate an incident and then make a final determination as to the outcome.

Expectations have both positive and negative aspects. Expectations are great when establishing goals and defining milestones or checkpoints for projects and job descriptions. They create problems when we apply them to existing situations where not all the relevant facts are immediately available. In other words, when we allow expectations to drive us to jump to conclusions about events or people, we can get ourselves in trouble.

This is especially problematic when one is determining whether a suspected lapse of ethical or legal requirements has occurred. Any time we jump to conclusions before we have all the evidence, we take the chance of engaging in error. That could result in an unwarranted negative outcome for someone. It is important to first understand the situation. Once one confirms a suspected incident, one must understand the basics to make a determination about the outcome or next step. For instance, one must know all the players, one must understand the context of any incident and one must understand who was or will be affected by the incident. One must also take into account who will be affected by any possible discipline or operational changes required by the final resolution.

Perception is another important element of determining the resolution of any ethics case. One must understand both the public's and the employee's perception of any change or disciplinary action. One must understand how regulatory or prosecutorial agencies will perceive the outcome. One must take into account the history of the individuals concerned. Have the person or persons done something similar in the past and failed to correct their behavior? Have they had remedial training in ethics and failed to incorporate that training into their behavior?

Ethics in today's world are more complex than ever. Technology and the opportunities for either positive or negative benefit to people complicate matters. Converging cultures influence the ability to understand how people come to their decisions. The nature of childhood education and experience has an impact on ethical systems and decision-making. Many ethical decisions today are not easy to reconcile. Some elements of ethics are obvious but many take a considerable effort to understand and act on appropriately.

Ethics affect so many people that it really does take a certain level of expertise to operate effectively in today's environment. Preparation is the key and remembering to RTFQ before making any determination is increasingly important.


  1. Slide the newspaper half way under a closed door and ask the two people to stand on the bit of newspaper on their side of the door.

  2. There are twelve (not four).

  3. Actually, the ladder will rise with the ship.

  4. Dimes are smaller than nickels, so choose the dimes.

  5. When they put them all together, there will be one pile.

  6. Horse racing.

  7. The President.

  8. Throw the ball straight up.

  9. Suicide.

  10. Sleeplessness.

  11. Just once. Then you'd be subtracting 2 from the numeral 7, then 2 from the numeral 5 and so forth.

  12. You will have two apples.

  13. Hold the egg more than three feet above the ground when you drop it.


The Author

Bruce Hamm

Bruce Hamm studied for the Catholic priesthood obtaining a BA in philosophy with an emphasis on ethics.  He has experience as a volunteer police officer.  He has over eight years in US Navy combat operations, coordinating a tactical data link between various battle group elements, controlling combat aircraft and instructing combat operations.  Then entering corporate management, Bruce conducted numerous workplace investigations, managed compliance for one employer and developed a Business Ethics program for another.  In 2001, he completed the “Managing Ethics in Organizations” Executive Development Course from the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley College and the Ethics Officer Association.  Combining his practical understanding of how organizations work with his desire to create healthy corporate cultures, he earned an MBA in Organizational Effectiveness at Marylhurst University.  Bruce is now also an adjunct instructor with DeVry University Online teaching Business Ethics and other general business topics.  Bruce is WatchIT’s Business Ethics and Compliance, Subject Matter Expert.  With two other professionals, Bruce was instrumental in the formation and continuing development of The Greater Omaha Alliance for Business Ethics.  Contact Bruce at and visit

Many more articles in Ethics in The CEO Refresher Archives
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