Monday, January 14, 2019

Do not sign documents before reading them


At a neighborhood abutter's meeting called by the city to gather feedback about a neighbor's proposed construction project at her house, the city representative announced that he was sending around a clipboard with a signup sheet. The city representative indicated it was a way for him to get in touch with neighbors about future meetings if any should be held.

A reader we're calling Lee, who lived around the block from the neighbor wanting to do work on her house, attended the meeting. He indicates he wanted to get a sense of what the neighbor was proposing and to hear from fellow neighbors in closer proximity to the proposed construction site.

Lee discovered that the site owner needed some zoning variances from the city zoning board to expand the size of the building she planned. While the zoning board had final word on any variances, the city wanted to gather reader feedback to the proposal.

At that first meeting, many of the attendees had concerns about the size of the building the number of trees which might be removed to make way for the new building. A few neighbors made it clear they were against anything being built on the site whether it was in compliance with the zoning laws or not.

About a month later, another abutter's meeting was called by the city representative at which the site owner presented revised plans for a substantially smaller structure. She still needed some variances to erect the building she wanted, but in addition to the smaller size proposed, fewer trees would be removed.

Again, clipboards with signup sheets were passed around. Lee willingly signed one of the sheets including his email address, thinking it was the city representative's list.

And again, a handful of abutters made clear that they were against anything being built on the site. "We're all against it," Lee recalls one of these abutters saying, which he knew was not an accurate statement.

As it turns out, the list he had signed at the second meeting was shared by the anti-build abutters. He discovered this a few weeks later when he received an email announcing a meeting at one of the abutter's homes to discuss how to proceed to stop the project.

"I'm not trying to stop the project," Lee writes. "It's her property. I'd like her to build something in keeping with the neighborhood, but since she seemed responsive to the original concerns, I'm not against her building something."

Lee thinks the abutter who circulated the list was unethical in not making it clear that it wasn't a list from the city representative. He thinks he should say something to the list spreader.

Lee can say something if he wants, but as long as the abutter made it clear on the list itself what it was people were signing, she's in the clear. Sure, it would have been a nice gesture to remind each prospective signer to read the description of what he or she was signing.

But the right thing for any of us is to read the documents we sign even if we assume they might be something else. If there is any doubt, the responsible reaction is to ask for clarification or simply not to sign. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

(c) 2019 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.



Sunday, January 06, 2019

Keeping good books on book donations


Every winter a reader we're calling Gary likes to spend some time culling through the bookshelves in his house to thin out his collection and make room for newer acquisitions. Gary likes to think of himself as a voracious reader who also appears to be an equally voracious collector.

"My shelf space is limited and there are only so many books I can pile on the floor in my bedroom and home office," he writes.

Gary's strategy is to get rid of the books he hasn't read in quite some time and is unlikely to re-read any time soon. The first titles to go are those titles for which he has multiple copies. In his zest for acquiring books he sometimes forgets he already owns a copy. In such instances, he keeps the best copy or a copy that has particular significance to him, whether it was a gift that includes an inscription or is a copy he heavily annotated.

While he's contemplated trying to sell his culled-out pile through any number of online options, few of his books are worth a lot of money and Gary doesn't want to invest the time it would take to list each title, track the sale, pack up a book, and then get to the post office. Instead, he chooses to donate the four or five boxes of books each year to local public libraries or other not-for-profits seeking donation.

This year, Gary's workplace was hosting a collection drive for books to go to a local nonprofit. As a result, he decided to split his donation equally between his local public library and his workplace's drive.

"My local library gives me a receipt for the donated books so I can take a charitable deduction from my taxes," Gary writes. He won't receive a receipt from any books given through work.

But Gary writes that the public library gives him a signed and dated receipt with a blank space for him to fill in the number of books he's donated.

He wants to know if it would be wrong to put the total number of books he donated to both places on the library receipt since he won't be getting one from the workplace drive.

"It's not like I'm lying about the number of books I donated," he writes.

Not lying is good.

But it would be wrong for Gary to indicate he donated books to his public library, which he really donated to another group. If getting a receipt for his taxes so he can claim the charitable deduction is his primary motivation, then Gary should donate all of his books to a group that provides receipts.

Since he is donating so many books, Gary might double-check with whoever is coordinating the workplace drive to see if he can be provided with a receipt.

Gary is doing a good thing by donating to local libraries and nonprofits. The right thing is for him to be honest about what he ultimately gives to each organization. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

(c) 2019 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Do not sign documents before reading them

At a neighborhood abutter's meeting called by the city to gather feedback about a neighbor's proposed construction project at he...