Sunday, May 25, 2014

Soaking a neighbor holds no ethical water

How much should a neighbor have to pay to fix damage his workers do to someone else's property?

During late fall and winter, work was being done on several houses in a suburban neighborhood. The work involved trucks delivering materials to the sites. Often, because many trucks were trying to deliver goods at the same time, some parked in front of neighboring homes.

After several months of work, one homeowner noticed a large rut on his front lawn, presumably caused by a large truck either parking on the edge of his lawn or backing up over his lawn. He wasn't sure which of his neighbors' work crews had caused the rut since he hadn't been home when the damage occurred.

One of the neighbors having work done admitted that his crew's truck had caused the damage and he would make good on repairs.

When spring came, the neighbor was true to his word and repaired the damage by installing loam and sod on the lawn that had been chewed up. The homeowner thanked his neighbor for the repair.

A few weeks later, however, as the irrigation system for the homeowner's lawn was turned on for the season, it was discovered that the work crew's truck had also broken some sprinkler heads. As the irrigation company was replacing the heads, the homeowner was figuring out how to tell his neighbor that he owed him $30 for each new sprinkler head. Before work on the sprinklers was finished, however, the workers from the irrigation company abruptly left.

The homeowner waited for the workers to return that day, but they never did. When the owner of the irrigation company called back, he explained that he and the foreman on the repair crew had had an argument and the foreman walked off the job and quit. The irrigation company owner offered to repair the sprinkler heads at no cost since the homeowner had taken the day off of work to be there for a job that wasn't completed.

The homeowner still had to decide whether or not to ask his neighbor to pay for the broken heads. The neighbor had, after all, acknowledged that his worker's trucks caused the damage. Regardless of whether or not the homeowner had to pay for the repairs, they still had to be done and he would need to take more time off work to supervise the job.

Would it be wrong to seek the $60 from his neighbor for what it would have cost to replace the sprinkler heads?

Yes, it would be wrong to do so. The right thing is to accept the irrigation company's offer and not seek payment from the neighbor for something being provided gratis. Trying to turn the irrigation company owner's good faith effort into an opportunity to make some extra cash off the neighbor - who'd already repaired the homeowner's damaged lawn - for his trouble holds no water. The fact that he'd have to take another day off work can be chalked up to the cost of homeownership. 

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Sunday, May 18, 2014

How far must we go to report sexual assault or harassment?

There's been a lot of press lately on the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Right's decision to release the names of 55 colleges and universities being investigated for possible violations of federal law in how they handled sexual violence and harassment complaints. In a pressrelease issued May 1, the OCR made clear that such investigations are initiated "to ensure that the campus is in compliance with federal law."

In other words, the schools cited might or might not be out of compliance when it comes to handling sexual violence or harassment complaints.

Almost as soon as the list was released, people took to social media with posts about whether or not their alma mater was on the list. If the OCR's intent was to draw attention to the issue of sexual assault and harassment on campus, releasing the names of these 55 schools did the trick.

Taking this step also raises the issue of how knowledgeable people at those institutions -- or any institution -- are about how they should act if they hear of or witness sexual assault. The first impulse might be to search the Internet for resources on the reporting of such incidents or what responsibility an employee has if a college student or business colleague tells reports that he or she has been the victim of sexual assault or sexual harassment.

Many colleges and businesses have posted information online about proper procedures. But what's the right thing to do if you go to a campus or company website and find that the information is clearly outdated, with contact for people who no longer work there or dead links?

Is the fact that you tried to hunt down the information enough? Once you find yourself directed to a "Not Found" page, does your obligation end?

Without doubt, the right thing is for institutions to make sure their informational pages about procedures to resolve sexual harassment issues are regularly checked to make sure they contain the most up-to-date information. Institutions should also do a more thorough job of instructing each employee on what to do if they witness or hear of such acts. Even if this amounts to only a list of steps to take and up-to-date phone numbers to call, that's a start.

But if an institution doesn't do these things, someone seeking information should not use this failure as an excuse to not try to help right what may turn out to be a terrible wrong.

The right thing for any employee who witnesses or learns of an incident of sexual harassment or assault is to do whatever it takes to learn the procedures for reporting the problem at his or her institution, then do whatever possible to lessen the chance such an incident will occur again. 

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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Is moonlighting on company time ever OK?

Years ago, a former colleague at a magazine left to take a job at another publication. He was a star writer on our staff, one of the most productive, and left on great terms. He also moonlighted while on the job, something he made public in an article he wrote for his new publication.

At first, he noted, he relegated his moonlighting to times when he was away from the office. Soon, however, he started using downtime at work for some moonlighting, utilizing company supplies and equipment, He always made the deadlines for our publication, but he made clear in the article that the money he earned moonlighting soon surpassed what he made from his full-time job.

While this writer reported his moonlighting income to the IRS, and his outside client wasn't in the same business as that covered by our magazine, he never told his boss that he was essentially working a side job while on the clock. Clearing his moonlighting activities with the boss always struck me as something he should have done. The boss didn't find out until he read the article in our former colleague's new magazine.

I was reminded of the moonlighting escapade when a graduate student -- whose job it was to man a desk for several hours in case students came seeking outside help for a course -- asked me recently if it was OK for him to do other work while he waited for students to show up. Often, no one visited him throughout his shift. When students did seek help, they never took up all of the hours the grad student had available.

Still, the grad student felt that somehow there might be something wrong with doing other work while he waited.

He could have dissuaded himself of any guilt by simply asking the professor for whom he worked if it was OK for him to complete other tasks as he waited for students. But the burden of doing so was not as great for him as it was for my former colleague.

The grad student was hired for one specific task: to be in the office ready to help students if they needed assistance. My magazine colleague, on the other hand, was hired as a full-time contributor to the publication. Even though he met his deadlines and was productive, had the boss known that my colleague had a significant amount of downtime, it would have been perfectly appropriate for the boss to ask him to take on more during the workday. He was being paid to do more than sit at a desk waiting for students to come by.

As long as the grad student fulfilled the function for which he was hired -- and dropped everything whenever a student showed up for assistance -- he could rest easy knowing he was doing the right thing and not taking advantage of his boss. 

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Sunday, May 04, 2014

How much do we owe our bosses before we move on?

A reader from the Midwest is looking to move on from the first job she took after completing her education. She describes the managers at her current job as wonderful for hiring her fresh out of school and training her.

But since the beginning of the year, she's been considering a move, mostly because she's no longer happy in the position, partly due to the fact that some of the skills she brought to the job have been ignored "to the extent where I must turn away and shut my mouth in situations where I could potentially be of use."

She also believes it's simply time to experience other aspects of her profession in different areas of the country.

No one at the company (to her knowledge) knows she's considering a move. She hopes to leave on good terms by giving appropriate notice once she finds a new job. However, her search "pretty much ground to a halt" when she learned a co-worker was pregnant.

"What are the ethics of finding a new job and leaving as the company is now starting to develop a plan to cover six to eight weeks of maternity leave, including possible overtime opportunities?" she asks.

Giving notice and then forcing her employers to hire someone new who'd need to be trained and ready to work independently by the time the co-worker started maternity leave was not the way she wanted to end her relationship with the company.

"We don't have a large pool of staff from which to pull when someone is out, and even a week-long vacation almost inevitably results in overtime and mild burnout for some people due to the long hours we maintain," she writes.

She's now looking at job postings only halfheartedly, since "I know it's decidedly not the right thing to saddle my employers with this burden."

Now, she wonders if she's obligated to continue working in a place where she believes she's overstayed her welcome until her co-worker returns from maternity leave.

While the reader shows a great deal of appreciation and loyalty for the job and training her employers gave her, she's under no obligation to cut her own job-hunting plans short based on the effect her co-worker's leave will have on the business. For one thing, she has no idea if other situations will arise that place pressure on her employers before the co-worker returns. For another, as long as she's worked hard and well at her current position and treated co-workers with respect, she can leave knowing she gave the current job her all.

The right thing, if the reader is ready to move on to new challenges, is to continue her job search, find a new position, and give her employers a reasonable amount of notice so they can prepare to hire a replacement. When she gives notice, the right thing for her employers to do is to congratulate her, thank her for her good work, and wish her well. 

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