Sunday, January 24, 2021

Relieving the headache of a self-checkout gone awry

It's safe to acknowledge that many people have felt a bit distracted since this past March when the pandemic threw their routines, schedules and lives into a bit of disarray. Adjusting to working remotely, managing children's in-person and online education, timing shopping trips to avoid crowds, and generally learning to live safely while avoiding exposure to the novel coronavirus has resulted in many instances of unintended forgetfulness.

A reader we're calling Johnson wrote of one such instance of recent distraction that leaves him in a bit of an ethical quandary.

"I had to make a quick run to the store to pick up some items," he writes. "Batteries, vitamins, lightbulbs, paper towels, Band-Aids and Tylenol were all on my list."

As was his practice to avoid as much contact with others as possible Johnson took his goods to the self-checkout area to scan, bag, and pay for his items. He figured it would be a quick trip.

"After I got home and checked the receipt, I discovered I hadn't scanned the Tylenol or the scan didn't go through," he writes. "What should I do to make good on the error? Or given that it's only about four bucks, should I just forget about it?"

Deliberate self check-out theft costs retailers a bundle. An article in "The Atlantic" magazine a few years ago suggested that about $850,000 worth of items leave stores without being paid for every year. Even though he might not have intended to, Johnson's taking of the Tylenol home without paying for it adds to that loss.

"I heard about companies like Amazon doing these returnless refunds where you can get a refund for an item you don't want but you can keep the item," Johnson writes. "If big companies do that, should I worry about going back and paying for the item I inadvertently took?"

Johnson shouldn't equate what companies like Amazon might do in terms of refunds with his situation. For one thing, he's not trying to return anything. But more importantly, whether or not he pays for his item should not be up to him, but to the retailer who made it available to him.

He also shouldn't assume that because the small bottle of Tylenol only cost about four bucks that it doesn't matter as much as if he, say, inadvertently neglected to pay for a $400 flat-screen television. What matters at the end of the day is that he left the store with an item he didn't pay for.

If Johnson is embarrassed to admit his mistake to the store's manager, I suppose he could return to the store, scan in another bottle of Tylenol, pay for it, and then leave the item at the store. That, of course, is likely to affect the store's inventory, but on Johnson's end, it would definitely settle things up.

But that approach is not the best, most transparent way to resolve his issue. The real right thing is for Johnson to return to the store, let a manager know what happened, and offer to pay for the Tylenol he brought home. People make mistakes and the store manager should thank Johnson for his honesty and for making things right. Getting square with the store will likely ease any guilt Johnson may be feeling about his error. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior 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 to have answered? Send them to jeffreyseglin@gmail.com. 

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin. 

(c) 2021 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Can I request mileage reimbursement for miles not technically traveled?

A reader from Canada we're calling "Winnie" works full-time at a company located about 40 miles from her home. Winnie also has a part-time job near her full-time place of employment for which she takes one hour of unpaid time off during lunch time to facilitate an early childhood music program. 

Both her full-time and part-time employers know about her two jobs.

The pay Winnie receives for the part-time job comes from a grant that also includes a budget for mileage reimbursement.

Winnie wants to know if it is ethical for her to ask for money from the budgeted mileage reimbursement allotment if she already has to travel to the location for her full-time job.

Winnie also wants to know if it would be ethical to consider offering the music program during a paid lunch break and still receive compensation for facilitating the class instead of taking an unpaid hour off as she is currently doing. "Would this be a conflict-of-interest with my main employer?"

As I mention regularly when responding to workplace issues, I am not a lawyer so I am not qualified to offer a legal response to Winnie's questions. But I can respond to what seems to be the right thing for Winnie to do.

Let's take her second question first. If Winnie wants to get paid for a lunch break and get paid to run the music program during said lunch break, her best course of action would be to let each employer know that is what she is doing. She may not be legally obligated to do this, but to maintain a good working relationship with each employer the best course of action would be to keep them informed. A question as simple as "Do you have any issue if I facilitate this program during my lunch break?" should suffice.

Her first question about mileage seems a little trickier at first, but because of the order in which she does her jobs, the appropriate course of action is actually pretty clear. If Winnie was offering the class before her full-time job, then asking for reimbursement from home to that job plus mileage from that job to her full-time place of employment might seem fair. But since Winnie is traveling to her full-time job first and that job does not offer mileage reimbursement, then requesting reimbursement for the entire mileage from the part-time job is inappropriate.

Based on how Winnie currently structures her workday, what does seem appropriate is for her to request a mileage reimbursement for the one or two miles she drives before and after lunchtime from her full-time job to her part-time job. Those are miles she wouldn't have had to drive for her full-time job.

An alternative would be for Winnie to simply talk to whoever manages the grant at her part-time job and ask them for advice on handling mileage reimbursement.

That may not be the legal answer, but it strikes me as the right thing for Winnie to consider. That she continues to put in the time to teach young children music also seems a pretty good thing, too. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior 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 to have answered? Send them to jeffreyseglin@gmail.com. 

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin. 

(c) 2021 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Take as much as you want but eat as much as you take

The last time I grabbed a container of yogurt and a cup of coffee at a complimentary breakfast buffet was slightly more than a year ago at The Inn on Third in St. Petersburg, Florida. We were in town for a wedding along with more than 100 other people when such gatherings were still the norm. Because it was winter, we extended our stay for a few days beyond the wedding because, well, winters in St. Petersburg are a tad warmer than those in Boston, Massachusetts. Although it seems a fading memory now, the innkeepers on Third Street went out of their way to make the stay enjoyable.

Perhaps anticipating the day when travel including hotel stays featuring complimentary breakfast buffets again becomes as normal for many of us as it was in pre-pandemic times, a reader we're calling "Robin," because that's her name, emailed to ask whether it was OK to bring food from a hotel's complimentary breakfast back to your room.

"The price of the breakfast is built into the room cost," she wrote, but she wondered if it was acceptable to consume whatever you selected any place other than the area where the breakfast is set up. Beyond that, she also asked, "Can you take extra for lunch, snack or meal later in the day?"

In some instances, the answer to Robin's question seems clear. When we traveled with our oldest grandson to Cooperstown, New York to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame a few years ago, we stayed at a small motor lodge on the way into town that set up its breakfast choices on a window ledge in the tiny registration office. There was no choice but to take what you wanted and return to your room or to one of the picnic tables in the motor lodge's backyard. Other times, it might not be so clear what the hotel's rules are about where the consumables are consumed.

I recall one buffet several years ago featured a sign that read: "Take as much as you want but eat as much as you take." That resulted in a chuckle, but it was still unclear if they meant to eat it right there and then or if it didn't matter as long as it was eaten and not wasted.

As Robin notes in her email to me, you can reasonably assume that the hotel is fine with and expects guests to take food back to their rooms if they provide disposable containers to carry the food. If you pack up a piece of fruit and a biscuit and end up eating it a bit after the breakfast hour that hardly seems to violate the spirit of the buffet. I'm fairly certain an apple doesn't care when it's eaten and neither should the hotel staff.

The right thing, however, is for the managers of the establishment to make clear what the rules are. If there is a sign asking guests to refrain from taking food or drink back to their rooms, they should. If no such sign is posted, then it seems fair to assume it's OK to do so. Some people simply want to enjoy  their first cup of coffee of the day alone. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior 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 to have answered? Send them to jeffreyseglin@gmail.com. 

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin. 

(c) 2021 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Looking back at another year of doing the right thing

A year ago, as I sat down to look back at the previous year's Right Thing columns, I couldn't have imagined what 2020 had in store or the range of topics I'd be covering over the course of the year.

As I do at the end of each year, I looked back at the 52 or so columns I've written to gauge the scope of topics about which I've written, the types of concerns readers share, and how I might do better in the coming year. I also assess which columns seemed to draw the most attention from readers by looking at the analytics for the website where the weekly column gets posted after it has run in publications that subscribe to it.

Gauging reader interest gives me a sense of the types of ethical issues seem most important to readers in their day-to-day lives.

In 2020, the five most-viewed columns touched on kindness, the importance of stories to remember those we've lost, decency, and thankfulness.

The fifth-most-viewed column, "Be kind when no one is looking," ran in January. It recounted how a reader's mindset was completely reframed after a barista asked about her day and comped her a cup of coffee and a day later a stranger tapped on her car window as she was parking to let her know she'd fed the meter for her. "Kindness is powerful," the reader wrote.

The fourth-most-viewed column, "Being kind, taking care of others is even more important now," ran in March just after the beginning of the pandemic. In it, I told the story of how an airline service agent and the property manager of the assisted living center in Minnesota where my ailing father lived went out of their ways to assist me as travel and visitation became challenging during the early days of the pandemic.

My May 12 column, "Our stories keep loved ones' memories alive," ran shortly after my father died. In it I wrote of how it is the stories told by those still living that keep the memories of those we've lost alive.

April's, "We do what we can to be decent," was my second most-viewed column. The story focused on how each of us looked for ways to bring normalcy and decency to our lives and those of others as many of us shifted to working, learning, or living remotely.

Finally, the most-viewed column of the year, "Even in times like these, we have reasons to be thankful," ran in November shortly after my sister died. In the column, I recounted how thankful I was for her presence in my life and for the weekly Zoom chats I had with her each Sunday at 5 p.m. for months. I wrote of how it felt like the right thing for each of us to embrace those things for which we can be grateful without losing sight of the many challenges that remain.

Thank you, as always, for continuing to email me your questions and stories and for your unabating willingness to read and respond to The Right Thing column. May your focus on kindness and decency continue to guide you through any challenging months ahead, and may your year be full of doing the right thing while surrounded by those in your life who choose to do the same.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior 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 to have answered? Send them to jeffreyseglin@gmail.com. 

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin. 

(c) 2021 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.