Sunday, June 01, 2014
Should you return misdirected mail to the sender...or not?
Almost six years ago, a reader and her husband purchased a house from a couple who'd decided to downsize and buy a condominium. The sellers were excited because the condo was located right on a golf course where they could enjoy their favorite hobby during retirement.
The buyers of the house had only met the sellers a handful of times -- once when they did a final walk through before closing and then at the closing itself. While their relationship was cordial, they didn't get to know one another well, and while the sellers obviously knew where the buyers would be living, the buyers had no idea where the sellers planned to move.
A month ago, the reader was perusing the obituaries in her local newspaper and saw that a man with the same name as the seller had died. On closer inspection, she discovered that it was the adult son of the sellers who'd died, not the father.
The reader shared the sad news with her husband. They informed neighbors who might have known the couple better about the loss of their son.
Three weeks after the former owners' son had died, the reader and her husband received two pieces of mail addressed to the former owners. From the stiffness of the envelopes, they seemed to be cards -- condolence cards, the reader guessed.
"They must not have known them well if they didn't know they moved six years ago," the reader observed. In any case, she found herself faced with the decision of what to do with the cards.
Given the former owners' loss, was she obligated to do exhaustive research until she found out where they had moved so she could forward the mail to them? If she found their new address, was it enough to simply write it on the envelopes and put them back in her mailbox for re-delivery? Or was it OK to simply write "return to sender" or "recipient no longer at this address" and drop the cards in the nearest public mailbox?
Now, one advantage of the "return to sender" or "recipient no longer at this address" route would be to notify the senders that their former friends no longer lived where they once did. But returning the cards meant the former owners might never receive these condolence for the loss of their son, so that choice did not sit right with the reader.
So what was the right thing to do?
While returning the cards to the senders would have been better than doing nothing, because it was important to the reader that the couple who sold her and her husband the house received the cards, the right thing is to make an effort to find the new address for the couple and either forward the cards there, or, if they didn't live far away, to simply drop the cards in their private mailbox.
If after checking various sources, including online directories, phone books, neighbors, or the funeral home handling the burial of the sellers' son, the search proved fruitless, the reader could rest easy if she decided to return the cards to their senders. She would know she'd done the right thing by trying to get them into the hands for which they were intended.
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