Sunday, November 13, 2016

Am I responsible to fix utility's error for my neighbor?

It had been a long day at work for C.L., a reader from Boston. She'd started work early and was home right before 6 p.m. As she walked up the sidewalk to turn into the walkway to the stairs to her house, she noticed a door-knob-type notice taped with masking tape to her fence.

It was from the Boston Water and Sewer Commission (BWSC). At the top of the notice in red type were printed the words, in all capital letters: "Final attempt notice to customers. You must schedule within 24 hours." Scanning down the note, another boldfaced sentence in red type read: "To avoid potential disruption of our water service an appointment must be made within 24 hours."

As C.L. read on, she learned that the BWSC was requiring all of its customers to have new automated water meters installed in their homes. The engineering firm responsible for the installations instructed readers of the notice to call within 24 hours to set up an appointment to let an engineer into the house to make the change.

Since the note indicated that BWSC's operators were standing by until 7 p.m. on weeknights, C.L. called the number given to make an appointment. The operator told her that she would call her back later that evening. C.L. would have to take time off of work to let the representative into the house, so she was eager to take care of business. No one called back that night.

The following day, C.L.'s husband, R.L. got home from work in the late afternoon. The phone rang and a perplexed operator indicated that C.L. had called about the change.

"We're confused because your meter was already changed out last September," the operator said.

"Then why did someone from your company leave a note threatening in red letters to shut off our water if we didn't call you right away?"

The conversation continued, until R.L looked more closely at the notice and saw that in scrawled handwriting at the bottom of the notice, the address for a house a block away from his appeared. He explained this to the operator and they both agreed that the notice had been delivered to the wrong house.

"Then why did your people deliver the notice to the wrong house if this is so important?" asked R.L.

"I'm in Louisiana, so I don't know," the operator responded.

"Will you make a note to make sure that the house that should have received this gets a new notice?" he asked. He was assured it would.

Now, C.L. and R.L. want to know if they are obligated to find the right house and leave the notice they got there, just in case BWSC screws up again.

It's the BWSC's responsibility to do its job, or have its representatives do theirs. C.L. and R.L. have no responsibility to re-deliver the notice. But they should take a stroll down the street and leave the notice for its intended recipient. It's both the right thing and the neighborly thing to do. 

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, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 



Anonymous said...

My God, CL did all any normal person could or should have done, way more than I would have. The only additional comment is, CL sure was a good neighbor. And, last, is this the way Utility companies do business nowadays?

Charlie Seng

Azalea Annie said...

It's good that CL did call the utility company's representative. That is what I would have done. I also would have asked the representative to assure me that they would call the homeowner who should have gotten the notice. Unless you personally know the family living in the other house, there is nothing left to do, as a stranger might resent a call.

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