Sunday, September 25, 2011

When bad driving happens to good customers

Stacks of bagged mulch, stone and gravel sit in the parking lots of a regional chain of small hardware stores. It's common for customers to park close to these heaps to make it easier to load the goods into their trunks.

"It's just a neighborly gesture the hardware store makes by accommodating this parking," writes a reader. "Or so I thought."

After two clerks from the hardware store loaded his car's trunk with the bags of mulch he had purchased, he began to drive away. When he heard an awful scraping noise that is all too familiar to those who have been in fender benders, my reader realized that his car had grazed a pallet of bricks that were sticking out near where he had parked.

"The manager did nothing but shrug and say I was not supposed to park next to the bags of mulch," writes my reader. "I asked him where the signs were telling people this. Where were the ropes and pylons and other things directing us where to park? Why didn't the employees who loaded up my car say anything?"

Ultimately, my reader had to ask the manager to get a forklift to remove the bricks so he could get his car out of the parking lot.

"I contacted a police officer, who followed me back to the hardware store," he writes. "As the officer was writing up the accident and my car was again in the 'mulch' lane, another worker came up and asked which bags we wanted loaded into my car!"

My reader's car repair cost him about $400. He figures that equals about two years' worth of products from the hardware store that in the past he might have purchased. "Perhaps I will visit the store again in two years," he writes.

Has the business since changed the signage? "When my temper settles, I may drive by to look."

Was the hardware store in the wrong here? He wants to know.

Sure, the hardware store should have posted signs in the parking lot near the mulch if it didn't want customers to park there. And if they didn't want customers parking there, they certainly shouldn't have instructed workers to encourage them to park there when they needed bags of mulch loaded.

But my reader isn't entirely off the hook. The pallet of bricks was in the parking lot when he arrived. He was responsible for being aware of his surroundings as he left the parking space, whether that meant avoiding the piles of mulch and gravel, the other parked cars, or pallets of goods parked there.

The right thing would have been for the manager to offer whatever assistance he could after the accident, but not to lay blame upon the customer for doing something that was customary and encouraged by the store's employees. And the right thing for the customer was to acknowledge that he made a mistake in banging up his car, and to take responsibility for his own fender bender.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing:Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business,"  is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

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

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Dogged by a pet's death

A woman in the Northeast owned two dogs. After deciding to take a short trip, she arranged to have a caretaker tend to the dogs she planned to leave at home. A neighbor agreed to do the job, and the owner intended to pay her for providing this service.

The owner wanted the dogs to remain in her house while she was away. She left very specific instructions for the dogs' caretaker.

Twice a day, she was to take the dogs outside, on leashes, so they could "do their business." Once a day, they were also to get a walk, again while on leash. The leashes "were a must" because the woman and her dogs lived on a very busy road.

While she was still on her trip, the owner received the devastating news that one of her dogs had been killed by a car on the busy road outside of her house.

It seems the caretaker had decided to take the dogs to her own house, on the opposite side of the busy road. So the dogs wouldn't run away, she had tied the collars of two rather large dogs with ropes to a lawn chair and then went inside. The larger of the two dogs broke loose and ran toward home and into the street and was struck by a car. The smaller dog was trying to run home, too, but didn't get far because she was pulling the lawn chair behind her.

Another neighbor found the critically injured dog and informed the caretaker.

The caretaker then took the dying animal to an animal hospital and permitted the veterinarian to try to save the dog's life to no avail. As a result of the veterinarian's work, a sizable bill was run up.

A friend of the owner who learned of the incident wrote to me to provide me with the details. She asks: "Should the owner pay the caretaker back for the vet bill?"

There are at least two reasons I believe that the owner bears no responsibility in repaying the caretaker for the bill.

The first reason is that the caretaker did not contact the owner to let her know that her dog had been hit by the car. If she had, she could have told the owner about the efforts the veterinarian was willing to make and the owner could have agreed to those efforts.

The second reason is that the caretaker clearly violated the agreement she had with the owner to care for her dogs. The deal was never to tie the dogs to a lawn chair in her own backyard. The owner explicitly asked the caretaker to agree to care for the dogs in their own home and to keep them on leashes whenever she took them out. Her violation of this agreement resulted in the dog's death.

It would have been right for the caretaker to honor her agreement with the owner. It also would have been right for her to seek permission from the owner to take extraordinary efforts in reviving the dog after it was struck by the car. It's too late for either.

Now, the right thing is for the owner to be allowed to mourn the loss of her pet without the added burden of worrying about whether she owes the caretaker anything for her haphazard behavior.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing:Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

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

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Does the baby factor into the business deal?

"Guilt is supposed to guide us back to our moral compass I had always thought," writes D.C., a reader from the Midwest. She feels "inexplicably really guilty" and is concerned that she may have done something wrong in recent business dealings with the owner of a property she is leasing to run a lodge that will open later this year.

D.C. agreed to the lease back in February. She has paid half of the cost of the lease already (tens of thousands of dollars, she indicates) and is "wholeheartedly committed to setting up the lodge." She is committed to finding lodge guests by investing in marketing and advertising.

Sometime after they'd agreed on the details of the lease, but before all of the paperwork had been signed, D.C. found out she was pregnant. It was unplanned, she writes, a "miracle" that has her over the moon about what will be her first child after a long wait.

"I chose not to tell the property owner about my pregnancy for two reasons," she writes. "First, it was my private health information, and second, pregnant women and mothers have the right to work and I did not want her to give her a chance to discriminate against me."

With just a few months to go before the hotel is to open and the final paperwork still not complete, the owner of the property somehow found out about the pregnancy and is outraged.

"I don't know how she found out," writes D.C. "It is possible she may even try to negate our agreement."

When she found out she was pregnant, D.C. hired an au pair and two extra staff members because she intended to keep on working and thought it prudent to hire the child care assistance she knows she'll need.

"I intend to work just as hard and do just as great a job now that I am going to have a child," writes D.C. "It is my reputation and my dream. I have standards and take them seriously. I hope to be able to tell my daughter I still followed my dreams even though she was coming and that even though it was hard, I provided for her and did it doing what I loved."

She wouldn't have told an employer about the pregnancy, but she reminds me that this woman is the owner of the property she is leasing, not an employer. Still, D.C. has an outstanding financial obligation to her since one half of the lease payment is still due during the term of the lease and doesn't want anything to sour her relationship.

"Did I do something wrong?" asks D.C.

Absolutely not.

D.C. did the right thing by taking steps to ensure that she could honor her business agreement once she learned of her pregnancy. The pregnancy itself should not be of any concern to the property owner as long as D.C. meets her obligations.

Any guilt D.C. might feel is likely the result of the property owner's outraged response that caught D.C. off guard. It's normal to question your own actions when someone feels something so viscerally in response.

But D.C.'s moral compass led her to be responsible and do everything she could to meet her obligations. Someday, her daughter can respond with pride about how her mother acted.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing:Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

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

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Put your hands on the hood and your shopping bags in the car

As she and her daughter were returning to their car in a Southern California mall's parking lot in, E.O. writes that she saw a woman near an SUV speaking very loudly to her young children.

"I thought it was a bit much when she told them to put their hands on the car and not to move until she got all of the things they had purchased into the car," E.O. writes. The mother's tone "kind of reminded me of a cop saying the same thing to a criminal."

E.O.'s 15-year-old daughter also witnessed the incident and said: "Mom, if you ever treated me like that, I'd probably run away." They laughed and E.O. assured her she couldn't ever treat her that way.

Still, she never considered calling the mother out on abusing her children, and believes others should wait and observe before doing anything. "If you think someone is abusive, you will see it in those minutes watching them carefully," E.O. writes. "If you don't, you could be dead wrong."

Perhaps, E.O. figured that since she witnessed the event around Christmastime, this mother might have been just another frustrated parent who had had a bit too much holiday shopping that day. "Or was it a mom who had truly lost all of her senses and needed to be picked up by authorities?" she asks.

"I didn't notice anything further that was potentially damaging to the children, so I did nothing."

E.O. recalled that her method of controlling her daughter and son when they were younger and shopping together was to hold their hands throughout the store. If that proved impossible, they left the store regardless of whether they had finished shopping.

"My best success would be telling the kids there would be a candy or ice cream stop after the store trip," she writes. "They were well behaved with that technique, believe me. They knew we'd go home without the treats if they weren't!"

The loud lady with the kids got into her car and left without further incident. E.O. and her daughter left just about the same time.

"People nowadays want to call abuse on everyone," writes E.O. "Wait and observe. You can't judge by one action alone, I say."

Still, she asks "What should someone else in my place have done to that lady?"

When E.O. writes that "she did nothing," that's not entirely accurate. After witnessing the unusual parenting of the mother, she waited and observed. Had she seen any truly abusive behavior, she then could have either decided to intervene or to call for someone to help. Because she didn't, she took no further action.

All parents find their own way to manage their children's behavior. E.O. held hands. The parking lot mother wanted to know where her children's hands were, as well, albeit in a less-nurturing manner. Ultimately, she may just have been trying to keep her children safe in a busy mall parking lot.

E.O. did the right thing by not jumping to any conclusions and instead trying to discern if there truly was a problem that placed the other mother's children in danger. We shouldn't turn a blind eye when we witness others who are in need of help, but we shouldn't jump to conclusions about people's behavior either based on one odd, but ambiguous action.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing:Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

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

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

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