Sunday, October 22, 2017

Does taking a gift signify approval of a neighbor's project?

There's a lot of construction going on in L.L.'s neighborhood. Empty lots are being dug up for foundations of new homes. Existing homes are going through massive renovations. Some homeowners are seeking zoning variances from the city to build multiple units on their lots. Trucks and workers arrive early every morning and the sound of machinery, hammers, saws and worker chatter fill the air.

L.L. is concerned about the extra car traffic that all the construction will bring to her once relatively quiet city neighborhood, but she also recognizes that many of the improvements being done will increase the value of her own property and create much needed housing, albeit only for those who will be able to afford it.

But one project in particular troubled L.L. The owner of a house on a large lot also owned an empty lot next door. He wanted to move his house forward on his lot and then build six new housing units on his land. To do so, he would need to seek a variance from the city zoning board. As part of this process, he solicited support from his nearby neighbors, including L.L.

L.L. thought his plans would change the whole tenor of the neighborhood and, with plans to have parking for 14 cars on his new project, would result in even more traffic congestion. When her neighbor shared his plans with her, L.L. told him exactly how she felt about his project and told him she would not support it in its current form.

The neighbor was not pleased, but he moved on and ultimately received approval for his plan to develop his residential property.

"A few weeks ago, he saw me on the street, walked over, and asked me if I wanted any of the daffodils that would be dug up as they started clearing out his lots," L.L. writes, noting that every spring hundreds of daffodils would bloom on his property. "I'd love some of the bulbs," she writes, "but it doesn't feel right to take anything from this man when I objected so much to what he was planning to do."

L.L. wants to know if she would be a hypocrite to take some of the daffodil bulbs her neighbor offered.

The neighbor already has approval to follow through on building his plan. He is doing nothing wrong by offering the daffodils to L.L. and, while he might be trying to keep the peace with his neighbors by being generous, he's going to build whether they approve of his project or whether they accept any bulbs.

By accepting the daffodils, L.L. doesn't signal to her neighbor or anyone else that she now approves of his project.

The right thing is for L.L. to accept the bulbs if she wants to accept the bulbs and to hope that she can transfer some of the beauty she used to enjoy witnessing with the coming of each spring from her neighbor's yard to her own so that she and others can enjoy the view. 

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, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 



Anonymous said...

I can't see how taking a gift signify "approval" to a neighbor's project. That's reaching!

Charlie Seng

Phil Clutts said...

Even assuming that the neighbor’s offer was extended to her as a “peace offering,” I think L.L. would be setting herself up for a charge of hypocrisy or ingratitude by accepting the bulbs. They would probably not “buy” her silence about the project as it develops and for who knows how long afterwards, and the neighbor could complain that he tried to do “the right thing” by her, only to hear about her continued complaints. Maybe the best bet would be for her to bake him a pie or something and offer it in exchange for some bulbs, while declaring in as friendly and genuine a way as she can muster that while she remains totally opposed to the project, it’s nothing personal.