Sunday, August 17, 2014

Surveying the landscape for honest businesses yields a gem

As a small business owner trying to generate sales, is it ever a good idea to advise customers to not avail themselves of your services?

A few weeks ago, homeowners in parts of the Northeast where I live began to receive notices that revised flood plain classifications made it necessary for us to start carrying flood insurance on our homes. This wasn't exactly a surprise, since there had been talk of the revisions for some time. The unknown factor was how much coverage might cost.

The notices and subsequent discussions with insurance providers or banks holding mortgages began to make the costs clear.

My wife and I were among those who received a notice a couple of weeks ago from the bank with holds our mortgage, telling us the bank could sell us flood insurance. The banks quoted a price, but encouraged us to shop around among other providers for the best rate.

Our insurance broker informed us that to pinpoint an accurate price, she'd need a flood elevation certificate. While we knew we were in a flood plain and could consult FEMA maps to see what elevation zone we were in, no elevation certificate yet existed for our house. To get one, we'd have to hire a surveyor, which would cost between $600 and $1,000.

What we didn't know was whether the surveyor's findings would result in a lower premium than what our bank was offering. Because we and our neighbors were in the same boat -- most of them had no flood elevation certificates, either -- we couldn't compare prices on insurance.

The bank wasn't particularly helpful in letting us know how it determined the cost of our insurance without an elevation certificate. Uncertain what to do, we asked a surveyor, who'd done work for us before, whether it was worth spending the money on his services that could equal almost half of what the bank quoted as a price for flood insurance. He said it could just as easily turn out that once the elevation certificate was completed, other insurance company premiums might be lower -- but they might also be higher than the bank's quote.

If the surveyor had told us he thought the wise thing to do was go ahead and get the elevation certificate, we would have hired him for the job. Instead, he said, "I'd wait." He advised us that rather than spend money on his services, he'd recommend going with the bank's offer, then speaking with neighbors about their experiences. If it became clear later on that the elevation certificate was worth it to receive a lower rate, he'd be glad to handle our insurance.

He didn't turn down the job because he didn't want it. He works for a small company in town and could use the business. He advised us not to rush into hiring him because he believed this was honest advice and the right thing to do for a valued customer. When the time comes to get a flood elevation certificate or any other surveying services, his company has our business. 

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

Civility costs you nothing

Does treating someone badly warrant a lack of civility in return?

A reader from Ontario, Canada, and her spouse were going through a rough patch with her teenage daughter. The problem was nothing extraordinary, but simply the type of behavior many parents of teens face as their children struggle for independence. Suddenly, a usually compliant child has turned into a young adult who wants to make decisions on his/her own. Some of these decisions can upset parents.

Because the reader was consumed by her daughter's behavior, she found herself more distracted than usual.

"When I was at the post office, a young girl -- 14 or so -- held the door open for me," she wrote. "I was so distraught I could not respond."

When no "thank you" was forthcoming from the reader, the teen said in a very sour voice, "Well, thank yoooooooou!" In light of what was going on in the reader's life at the time, she now wishes she'd the presence of mind to tell the girl what holding that door had meant to her.

It's not unusual for people to become distracted by daily concerns to the point of forgetting to acknowledge the small acts of kindness around them. The reader is correct: The right thing would have been to stop fretting about her daughter long enough to thank the girl for her kindness in holding the door.

Still, people make mistakes. Years ago, when I was shopping before work at the original Filene's Basement in downtown Boston, a fellow shopper shouted at me after I'd passed him in the aisle.

"Don't you say 'excuse me'?" he asked. When I looked at him in confusion, he shouted for all to hear, "The guy just hit me with his briefcase and he doesn't bother to say 'excuse me'!" I was certain he was correct and that my overstuffed briefcase must have struck him as I walked by, but I'd been completely oblivious.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't know." The apology didn't satisfy him, but each of us went on our way.

Did the reader's missed "thank you" call for a snarky response from the young door holder? No. The right thing would have been for the teen to simply hold the door and recognize that she'd done something nice for someone. A "thank you" would have been appropriate, but the lack of one doesn't diminish the kindness of her action. Her words did, turning a kind act into a churlish hurl of words.

Be kind, but don't turn on someone if they're not kind in return. Their actions should not alter your original intent. Some people, like the reader, are simply preoccupied and most often do not let acts of kindness pass unnoticed. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Sunday, August 03, 2014

Calling the boss out on his misdeeds takes courage

How far should you go to call attention to a colleague's wrongdoing?

A reader used to work for a publication where all the employees, including his boss, had a writing quota. An executive higher up at the publication instituted a policy that required the staff to pair up with one another and serve as one another's copyeditor. The reader was asked by his boss to serve as his copyeditor.

The reader began to notice that his boss was presenting old stories as new ones. As part of the copyediting process, the reader called his boss's attention to this.

"He brushed it off, saying he'd added new details," the reader stated.

No one but the reader seemed to notice the boss's practice.

Then, the boss began taking press releases submitted by outside firms and using them, unattributed, in his articles.

"I told him he had to stop or at least attribute them," the reader writes. His boss then informed him that he would no longer be his copyeditor. Not long after, the reader was let go.

He's not certain, but he suspects his boss was involved in the decision to let him go, but he decided not to blow the whistle.

"Should I have outed him?" the reader asks. "I have to admit I hoped someone would do it eventually."

Several months later, the company downsized and the boss and several other members of the writing staff were let go. Soon after, the publication filed for bankruptcy.

The reader would have lost his job a few months after he did even if he had stayed on. Whether or not he reported his boss's wrongdoing, the boss would have lost his job, as everyone else did. Given these factors, does it matter that no one ever called the boss out on his misdeeds?

You don't have to look far to see high-profile instances of plagiarism reported in the press. Misappropriating someone else's work as your own -- whether it's a news article or a press release -- is unprofessional and wrong. Passing off old work as new doesn't pass muster and misleads readers into believing they're receiving something that they are not.

Perhaps some sort of justice was served by the boss losing his job, even if it had nothing to do with his misdeeds. But because the boss was able to behave inappropriately without ever being called on it, he can move on to another job as if his integrity and professionalism were intact.

When the boss would not change his practice after the reader pointed it out to him during several copyediting sessions, the right thing would have been to go to the higher-up who instituted the copyediting pairings at the publication. If not then, then certainly the reader might have pointed out the problem when told he was being let go -- although at that point it might have sounded like sour grapes.

If fear of being fired was the reason for not reporting the plagiarism, it turned out that not reporting it resulted in the reader losing his job anyway. If the reader had reported the misdeeds, then at the very least the higher-up would have had the opportunity to do the right thing and call the boss on his actions. 

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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Friendly neighborhood web site taking a toxic turn

An online website open to residents of an urban neighborhood in the northeast U.S. was designed as a way for neighbors to keep one another informed about everything from yard sales and local performances to police ticketing illegally parked cars and potential safety issues. It's not unique in its mission. Many online sites -- either freestanding or through other social media websites -- have proliferated over the past several years.

As neighbors lives have gotten busier, the sites offer a way to keep one another informed -- even if some users don't recognize the names of many of their neighbors doing the informing.

On the site in question, while hundreds of neighbors have signed up, only a handful are regular users. Others chime in occasionally to request the name of a good plumber or advertise some gently used furniture. It's the dozen or so regular posters who have command of the site.

Lately, the tone of the site has been decidedly alarmist, with posts about roving bands of young kids on bikes or complaints that children "from other neighborhoods" using the public basketball courts leave them littered with empty water and sports drink bottles. There have been posts raising concerns about whether these "outsiders" are frequenting the neighborhood parks to buy and sell drugs.

Others complain that police don't respond to their concerns quickly enough. Still others complain when police ticket cars parked partially on sidewalks because someone called to complain, even though such parking has been acceptable for years as a way of letting emergency vehicles pass through narrow streets when necessary.

Occasionally, some complaints strike some users as inappropriate, especially those veering into concern about "others" coming into the neighborhood to use the public parks and courts. When a site member responds to take such a poster to task, this triggers an angry back-and-forth exchange among the regulars.

What, then, are the majority of users who stay connected to the site for legitimate news and safety tips to do? Among themselves, many of these non-posting members gripe about the tone some posts, but is it their responsibility to challenge any post that seems tinged with racism or constitutes verbal bullying? After all, whenever someone does post a call for moderation, the discussion often gets even more heated.

It's good for neighbors to try to keep one another informed. However, when this results in more alarmist or offensive posts than useful ones, the value of the site is lessened.

The right thing for the non-posting users to do is decide whether the information they get from the site outweighs their frustration over the tone of some posts. If they find too many postings objectionable, they should quit the site and find alternative ways to get the information they need. 

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