Sunday, August 28, 2016

Does reader need to correct oversight at the airport?



After a couple of weeks on vacation in Europe, E.W., a reader from Massachusetts, was ready to return home. He got a car to the airport and made his way through security with plenty of time to spare before his flight took off. He'd hoped to spend a few of the remaining Euros he had on gifts for friends and family back home.

In addition to a few souvenirs and several boxes of Toblerone chocolate, E.W. bought a small bottle of liquor for a neighbor who was having a party a few days after E.W. got home. At the register, the cashier asked for a copy of E.W.'s boarding pass each time he made a purchase. She sealed up the bottle of liquor in a plastic bag that she then placed in another shopping bag.

On the plane, the flight attendant passed out forms for U.S. citizens to fill out about their trip to indicate any purchases they were bringing back into the country. E.W. filled out the form and tucked it into his passport so he could give it to a U.S. Customs officer when he arrived in Massachusetts, after a long night's flight. He indicated on the form what he had purchased and how much he had spent.

Groggy from the flight and not yet adjusted to the time difference between where he'd been and where he was now, E.W. stepped up the Customs officer and presented his passport along with the form he'd filled out on the plane. The Customs officer looked E.W. over, looked his passport over, and then asked a few questions, including, "Did you purchase any liquor?"

While he'd indicated on his forms that he'd made purchases, E.W. answered "no" without thinking anything about it. The Customs officer stamped his passport and sent E.W. on his way. It was only as he was board a bus home that E.W. realized he was indeed carrying in his backpack a small bottle of liquor he'd purchased.

Now, E.W. wonders if he's in trouble because he answered incorrectly. "Should I do something to correct my error?" he asks.

I'm not a lawyer and have no expertise in Customs law, but it wasn't right to answer the Customs officer incorrectly and I suspect there can be significant penalties for doing so. But E.W. had indicated his purchases on his forms so he clearly wasn't trying to hide anything. If the Customs officer had asked to check E.W.'s backpack, I suspect the request would have awoken his memory about the small bottle residing there. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection's website, the U.S. permits its citizens to bring a bottle of wine or liquor home without incurring any duty or tax, so E.W. was not violating any laws by bringing the bottle into the country. (Canada's Border Services Agency has a similar provision for its citizens.)

The right thing would have been to tell the Customs officer about the purchase. But as long as he indicated the purchase on his form, now that he is home, it doesn't seem necessary for E.W. to call U.S. Customs to come clean. I suspect it's a mistake he will never make again. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

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

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

(c) 2015 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Make sure you know where your email is going



How obligated are we to let people know when they've emailed you by mistake?

As he was walking home from work, J.L. came to a stoplight. He decided to check his smartphone for email while he was waiting. As he scrolled through, J.L. noticed that he'd been copied on an email that a distant cousin of his had written to her daughter.

"Should we invite [J.L.] to your wedding," the cousin asked her daughter. "He and his wife were very nice to us when we visited."

J.L. was certain that the email wasn't intended for him and he thought he would let it pass. But when he got home, he checked his email again and there among his email thread was a response from his cousin's daughter:

"If we invite him, do we need to invite his sister, too?"

J.L. thought the discussion was beginning to sound like they wanted to think about inviting him, but weren't crazy about the idea of inviting his sister. He remained convinced that his cousin and her daughter had copied him in error, but even in the replies, his name stayed on the routing list.

Before, when there was one email, he was fine just letting it pass and not alerting his cousin. But now that the discussion seemed like it might turn to one that included a more personal tone of who they might not want to invite to the wedding and why, J.L. believed it might be best to say something to his cousin.

He'd only met his cousin's daughter once when she was very young, so he had no expectations of being invited to her wedding. Since it was in a city different from the one in which he lived, he wasn't crazy about the idea of having to book a flight and hotel for the event anyway. Would alerting his cousin make her feel like they definitely should invite him now that he knows they were thinking about it?

J.L.'s predicament is yet another reason for each of us to be far more careful about what we send out in email and to whom we send it. There are many stories of employees hitting "reply all" to a received email and sending a snarky message that offends someone on the receiving end that the snark sender didn't even realize was on the recipient list.

J.L. is not obligated to alert his cousin that she inadvertently copied him on an email. She did not inadvertently disclose personal information that could do her or her daughter damage. Still, copying J.L. on an email in which they discuss whether he or his sister makes the wedding list cut could prove embarrassing to his cousin.

Given that the email discussion continued past the first errant message, the right thing for J.L. to do is to let his cousin know that she mistakenly copied him. If he wants to he can add a note about how kind it was for them to consider inviting him, but that given he didn't know the daughter all that well, he had no expectations of being invited. The right thing for the cousin and her daughter (and you too) to do is to take the time to make sure you're sending the email you want to send to the people you want to send it to. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

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

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

(c) 2015 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.


Sunday, August 14, 2016

Is it OK to turn a generous offer into a money maker?



Is it OK to offer something to neighbors and then try to get paid for what you offer?

That's what H.F. wants to know. He's not saying he's going to do it, mind you, but he's curious about whether it would be wrong to try.

H.F. belongs to a neighborhood association that's made up of a couple of dozen homeowners in the neighborhood. Every year they meet to pay nominal dues that are used for small communal garden and other shared expenses. Most years, the neighbors meet in the communal garden. Everyone brings a folding share and any drinks or appetizers they want for themselves or to share.

This year, H.F. and his family happen to be hosting a family reunion in their backyard the day before the reunion. For the reunion, H.F. has rented a large tent for his backyard. He has also ordered mounds of food and drink to feed his relatives.

When the announcement went out about this year's neighborhood association meeting, H.F. suggested to the president of the association that they consider meeting in his backyard since he'd already have a tent up. (The sun typically beats down hard on the communal garden where they typically meet.) The president thought that was a terrific idea and the meeting was moved to H.F.'s backyard.

Now, H.F. wants to know if he has food left over whether he should offer it to his neighbors when they meet. And if he does, would it be wrong to ask the association to defray the costs of some of that food. He also wonders whether he might run by the association president the idea of sharing some of the cost of the tent rental -- maybe not for a full day, but for something.

I'll tackle the easiest of these questions first. Of course, it would be OK for H.F to offer any leftover food to his neighbors. It would be gracious and generous to do so, and if the food would just go bad anyway, it would also be wise. He's under no obligation to offer leftover food, but there's nothing wrong with doing so. I'm sure his neighbors would appreciate the gesture.

But no, it would not be OK to ask the association to offset the cost of the food nor the tent. H.F. made the suggestion of using his backyard and tent since he'd already have the tent up. If he expected to be compensated for that gesture in anyway, he should have discussed it with the association president before the fact. In that case, the president would have had the opportunity to say thanks, but no thanks, and choose to have the meeting in the communal garden as they have in previous years.

The right thing when you make a generous offer is to stick to the offer you made without expecting to be rewarded or paid for your generosity. H.F. is right to think twice about whether to ask about money for food or the tent. He should stick to his original offer and remain the thoughtful neighbor. If he serves food, his neighbors should be doubly appreciative. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

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

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

(c) 2015 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.


Talking Politics Over Turkey

For those wrestling with how to have a civil discussion over a holiday meal, a discussion with HKS PolicyCast