Sunday, April 01, 2012

The check may or may not be in the mail

Last fall, a reader was working as the personal assistant to an author who ran a regular series of writing workshops. The reader's primary task was to help select and edit pieces of writing from various workshop participants that would be published as a book.

She dutifully set about the task and sent off a completed manuscript to the printer. When the pages came back from the printer to be proofread, my reader and her boss noticed many errors they had missed before sending the book off to the printer. Neither of them are professional copyeditors "by any stretch," my reader says. So she took it upon herself to make sure to hire someone to proofread the pages properly.

Because the errors were caught at this later stage of the production process, the author owed the printer an additional $300 to fix the mistakes before the final books were produced.

"As the editor, I felt responsible for this error and gave my boss a check to cover the expense," my reader says. A couple of weeks later the author called my reader to tell her that the check wasn't necessary and that she had torn it up. My reader chalked that up as "a very kind gesture."

Three months later, my reader was offered a new job. She gave her boss a month's notice. They agreed that instead of drawing her regular salary for the final month, she would invoice her for the specific hours she worked.

She submitted her final invoice for $150. No payment arrived. When she saw her boss, she told her that she would put the check in the mail. More weeks passed and still no check. My reader then contacted her former boss's assistant who handles her finances to see when the check would be sent.

That assistant responded that because the boss had never cashed the $300 check my reader had given her, she would like to "call it even." The other assistant ended by apologizing for being the bearer of this news and asked my reader, "Let me know what you think."

"I feel hurt and frustrated by this arrangement," my reader tells me. "We had a verbal agreement that she was not going to accept the $300."

"What is the right thing to do in this situation?" she asks. "Which of us is in the wrong?"

Not once, but twice did the former boss commit to not holding my reader responsible for the $300 in extra printing costs. First, when she told her she was tearing up the check. And then again when she told her the check would be in the mail for the money owed.

The boss was in the wrong not to pay what she owed.

The right thing is for my reader to let the former boss's other assistant know exactly what she thinks and to tell her that an agreement is an agreement, that it is not OK for the boss to renege on her financial commitment, and that she expects to be paid. And the right thing for the former boss is to get a check into the mail for the money she owes as soon as possible.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
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(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

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