Sunday, September 21, 2014
Baby, you can subsidize my parking
Parking at work can become a heated issue. At some businesses, negotiations over who gets to park where -- or for how much in adjacent lots -- can ignite fiery arguments. When a deal is finally struck, the cheers can be heard for blocks.
How much attention employees pay to such a benefit once they have it can a whole other story.
A professor -- let's call him Reg -- at a small liberal arts college located in the center of a major city writes to tell me that he recently received an email from human resources informing him that he'd receive a rebate of just over $465 for overpaying for parking during the previous 18 months.
It turns out no one had noticed that the college, which foots part of employees' parking costs, had been underpaying its portion of the parking bill each month for some staff.
Reg was informed that all employees still "active" at the college at the beginning of this academic year who were affected by the error would receive a rebate dating back 18 months.
"There was one problem," writes Reg. "I had been out of the country for one of the three semesters I was being reimbursed for." Even so, the college was set to reimburse him for a portion of the parking fees for that extra semester.
"I alerted the college to this discrepancy," Reg writes. "But I'm curious: Was this my ethical responsibility or would I have acted ethically had I ignored the college's error?"
Reg's question is a variation on a question readers regularly ask. A reader might receive too much money in an ATM transaction and wonder if it's his or her responsibility to return the extra cash. A reader might get too much change from the local coffee shop. Should they call attention to the errors?
Yes, the right thing is to call attention to such mistakes and try to correct them, just as Reg did. And the right thing was for the college to return the money as soon as the overpay errors were discovered.
But Reg and his fellow employees' plight raises a couple of other questions. The notification to Reg and others only specified that "active" employees would be reimbursed for the billing errors. The right thing would be for the college to make sure to reimburse anyone who'd been short-changed, regardless of whether they still worked for the school.
The notification also indicates that employees everywhere would do well to examine their pay stubs from time to time to see if errors exist. Granted, in this case, it was the college's mistake, but it's good for employees to understand their compensation and make sure they get what's owed them.
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 programat 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.