Sunday, May 14, 2017

If one contractor wrongs me, can I wrong another contractor?

Over the years, a reader, A.K., has hired a variety of contractors to do work on to the exterior of his house. Such tasks have included painting the exterior, replacing a roof, repairing porches, installing new porches, replacing windows, and tearing out dying trees and shrubs. On occasion, A.K. writes, when a contractor has completed the work, various items that belong to him have disappeared, ranging from items as inexpensive as a paint can opener and a plastic gas container to those more pricey like a hinged-lid trash can and an eight-foot wooden step ladder.

A.K. figures the contractors might have mistakenly taken an item when they were cleaning up their own equipment from the site. Rarely does he notice the item is missing until months later and by then he's figured it's too late to question the contractor. So he hasn't.

Recently, A.K. writes that he hired a contractor to replace some basement windows and a metal bulkhead door. He was pleased with the work and told the contractors as much. This time nothing appeared to be missing.

But several weeks after the work was complete, A.K. noticed that a 16-foot extension ladder was lying up against the back wall of his basement. It's an old dark basement, so A.K. is not surprised he hadn't noticed the ladder before. The ladder was old, pretty beaten up, but in workable condition. He figures the most recent contractors might have forgotten to take it, but he claims that he's honestly not sure how long it's been up against the wall in his basement.

Since there is no owner's name marked on the ladder, A.K. figures he might have to call several former contractors to find out who might have left it. "If someone claims it right away, I have no way to know for certain it's theirs," he writes.

"All these years I've watched my own stuff disappear," writes A.K. "I figure it's time someone left something behind for me."

Since it was left behind and no former contractor has called asking about the extension ladder, A.K. asks if it's fair for him to simply claim it as his own rather than try to chase down its rightful owner. "If someone does call about it, it's not like I won't return it to him," he writes.

Simply being wronged in the past doesn't make it right for A.K. to assume that it's OK for him to wrong someone else now. While I am no expert, I do not believe that karma works by someone leaving you a ladder to make up for someone else walking off with your garbage can.

The right thing is for A.K. to call the contractor who worked on his basement windows and bulkhead door and ask him if he left behind a ladder. If he wants to make sure that this was indeed the contractor who left it, he can ask him to identify the ladder, but he should still try to return what isn't his. And in the future, if he discovers that some belonging of his is missing after a contractor has done work, rather than waiting for the universe to right his contractor wrongs, the right thing is for him to call the contractor and ask about that possibility. 

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 



Azalea Annie said...

Two wrongs don't make a right. That was correct 200 years ago and it's still correct.

Do the right thing. Call the contractor and ask him if he is missing a ladder. Then sleep well.

Anonymous said...

I sympathize with the questioner and I support Azalea Annie, who quite properly suggests "righting the wrong".

My take is only slightly different but I think important. With all the work the questioner has had done and all the various tools, etc. that have disappeared, etc., I think that, without being excessively critical of the questioner, he simply has too much work done by different people, resulting sometimes in work tools being left, etc. We are way into too many complications from what seem to be honest workers. My comments may not do much good here but there are times when you as the home owner need to control the work done on your house more carefully, since the homeowner is having way too much trouble that honestly is resulting in "accidental" problems, I think.

Charlie Seng

Helene Raymond said...

Contractors are very important people because we all need them at some point especially if you own a house. Finding a good and trustworthy contractor can be a problem. People like going to the same contractor that did their last work. You want to trust them and it's natural but you have to be very careful. Hire someone with a good reputation.

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