Sunday, March 17, 2013
Return to sender, please, return to sender already
B.P., a reader from Ohio, moved into his house more than four years ago. Even after four years, however, he continues to receive mail addressed to the house's former owner. The occasional junk mail addressed to the previous occupant he doesn't mind. He can simply toss that out. But he's still receiving first-class mail containing financial and retirement statements from a mutual fund company addressed to the former owner.
"I am asking you for guidance on what is the right thing to do," writes B.P.
B.P. doesn't know the former owner. He had already packed up and moved to Missouri a few months before B.P. moved in. B.P. had heard he moved there for a new job. For a while, the former owner's mail was appropriately forwarded by the post office, but that no longer seems to be happening.
So B.P. started writing "Return to Sender-Does Not Live Here" and placed the former owner's mail in his outgoing mail.
But the mail kept coming. And B.P. kept returning it. About two years ago, he called the mutual fund company to let them know that the person they were trying to reach no longer lived at the address.
He's told his letter carrier that the addressee hasn't lived there in years. The carrier acknowledged that the mail should not be delivered and told B.P. he would issue a stop notice so it wouldn't be delivered again.
The mail kept coming.
Two weeks ago, B.P. emailed the mutual fund company again and was thanked in a return email by what he believes was an "actual human being" and assured that they would forward the issue onto the "privacy team."
He's since received another piece of mail address to the former owner.
"Maybe I am getting grumpy in my ripe old age of 38, but I feel that it isn't my responsibility anymore to fix what others are not taking responsibility for. When is enough, enough?" he asks. "What is the right thing to do?"
B.P. has gone above and beyond what most people would conclude was a reasonable effort to get this mail situation straightened out. But if it's first-class mail, simply chucking it in the trash is not the right thing to do. It's hardly more difficult to stick it back in the outgoing mail than it is to toss it in the trash -- more frustrating perhaps, but still the right thing to do.
The responsibility is on the former owner to notify the mutual fund company that his address has changed. Short of that, the company should honor its commitment to change the address from his former Ohio home to his new place in Missouri. And the post office should stop delivering mail to an address it knows is incorrect.
Each of these things should happen. But B.P.'s patience is wearing thin because the right thing is not happening. In the meantime, the right thing for him is to continue to return the mail and hope that one day soon it will find its direct way to its intended recipient.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.
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