Sunday, November 09, 2014
Noble offer to repair damaged laptop backfires
Several weeks ago, H.T., a reader from New England, arrived at her gym and "created a disaster."
The gym is a large open space. On one side is a common area for members with a large table and cubicles for gym members to store their belongings. When H.T. was walking over to put her things in a cubicle, she bumped into the table, causing a full water bottle with no cap to tip over. The water pooled under the bottle owner's laptop, which was also sitting on the table.
H.T. quickly lifted the laptop off the table and shouted, "Whose laptop is this?" The owner ran over. H.T. writes that she apologized "profusely" and told the owner that if she'd "messed up" the laptop she'd do whatever she could to get it fixed.
The next day, H.T. received an email from the laptop owner indicating that a computer store had quoted $170 to retrieve the data from the computer, plus another $1,200 to either repair the old laptop or replace it with a new one.
"In my wildest dreams, I never expected my offer to fix the situation would leave me with a bill of well over $1,000," H.T. writes. "Maybe I'm naive, but I thought maybe a couple hundred dollars (for repairs)." While H.T. was still willing to cover the data recovery costs, she stressed that it was the owner's responsibility to keep her personal belongings safe.
"An unattended laptop in a public space with an open water bottle beside it is an accident waiting to happen." Therefore, H.T. doesn't believe she should be financial responsible for buying the owner a new computer.
"Am I right?" she asks.
H.T. is right that the owner was irresponsible for not taking better care of her laptop. It's great that users trust fellow gym members enough to leave their laptops unattended, but leaving an opened water bottle next to her laptop was careless and the owner could have been held responsible for any damage that resulted.
Except, of course, that the person who nudged the table offered to accept responsibility for the damage. The right thing to do is for H.T. to honor her commitment. However, she shouldn't do so without first getting some kind of proof from the laptop owner that the machine needed to be replaced. H.T. should not take the owner's word for it that a new laptop was the only solution.
It's also perfectly reasonable for H.T. to be honest with the laptop owner and tell her she had no idea the repair costs would be so high, and see if the owner would be willing to let H.T. pay for the data retrieval only.
While it was noble of H.T. to offer to make things right once the damage was done -- when she could have easily turned a blind eye and walked away from the spill -- it would have been equally fine for her to set a limit on how much she was willing to help.
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
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