L.W. lives in an old Boston neighborhood in a house that his family has owned for six decades. Down the street to the left of his house, an old house is being gutted while the empty lot next to it is being prepared for concrete foundation to be poured so a new house can be built. Right next door to L.W.'s house is a three-family house, once owner-occupied, that is being gutted and transformed into three luxury condominiums.
While L.W.'s house is on a corner and on one street, the house next door is technically on another street. Yet, the houses share the same street number. Over the years, food deliveries, party guests, mail, and other stuff has found its way to the wrong house. It's been easy enough to re-direct items as long as the neighbors took the time to do so.
But now, L.W.'s neighbor is a contractor who is renovating the house next door. No one is living next door, so errant food deliveries and party goers no longer appear on his doorstep. But a week or so ago, L.W. writes that he received a letter from the city informing him that he owed $35 in fines for improper disposal of trash.
When L.W. took a closer look at the letter, he saw that while it was addressed to him, the photo that accompanied the letter was of loose trash piled up against the house next door. The city officials had mistaken the same-numbered house next door for his, even though the photo clearly showed that they were in error.
In the past, L.W. says that when he received mail meant for his neighbor he would simply walk next door and put it in her mail box. But he's not sure what the right thing is to do with this notice.
"I could get in touch with the contractor and let him know," writes L.W. "But if he ignores the notice, the city might think it was me who ignored it. Am I obligated to let the contractor know about this notice? Wouldn't that be the neighborly thing to do?"
No, L.W. has no obligation to let the contractor know about the errant notice. The right thing for him to do is to call, email, or write the city agency that sent him the notice, let it know that the photo of the trash is not at his house but the house next door, give the correct address, and leave it to the city to notify the correct owner. And the right thing for the contractor to do is to do a better job of cleaning up his site.
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.
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