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 www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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