Ethics Quiz: The Declining Neighborhood Contractor

Two weeks ago, The Ethicist (that’s , the real ethicist who authors the New York Times Magazine’s advice column) was asked about the most ethical response to a true ethics conflict. A neighbor who frequently did contracting work in his neighborhood had recently  begun delivering shoddy work.

The inquirer writes, “He has made numerous mistakes, which have required fixes. He occasionally smells of alcohol and admits that he has “a beer” at lunch. Although he is on the job every day, he has not fulfilled the oversight component that we expect from a general contractor, and we have gradually taken over managing the project. “

The inquirer knows the man’s family, which has been going through a difficult period, “which may have impacted his mental health and drinking patterns.” Now he wonders where his loyalties and responsibilities lay. Does he have an obligation to alert neighbors, through a community consumer referral website, that their neighbor’s work is now unreliable? Or is the kind, compassionate action of trying to help the friend work through his current problems, while letting neighbors take their chances, despite the fact that everyone knows the inquirer has referred the contractor favorably in the past?

Appiah makes the predictable ethicist call that the duty to the many over-rides the duty to the one, especially since the inquirer has some responsibility for the community’s trusting the rapidly declining contractor. His advice asserts the equivalent of a duty to warn.

Your Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Is The Ethicist right?

My take: he’s right if the first step by the inquirer is to confront the contractor with the truth. He has been botching jobs, and unless and until he addresses the problem, whatever it is, then not only will his services not be endorsed, his recent failures will have to be communicated to the community. The duty to warn extends to the contractor, and he ought to be given a chance to fix whatever is wrong before the inquirer begins dismantling his reputation.

16 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Declining Neighborhood Contractor

  1. I think the Ethicist is correct. I’ve been on the receiving end of a lack of relevant information.

    Not long ago, we needed some contracting work done. My sister recommended a good friend of hers who seemed both friendly and competent.

    The work wasn’t shoddy, but took longer than it should have because, despite being given our work/cell numbers, he would call us only during working hours and leave messages on our home answering machine. Then not pick up the phone when we called to return his messages in the evenings.

    We were quite unhappy when my sister revealed, after all was said and done, that she has the same problems communicating with him that we had. We wondered why she’d recommended someone she knew was hard to contact.

    In my opinion, she should have warned us that playing phone tag was a possibility so we could make an informed decision about whether the job could be done in a timely manner.

  2. In Star Trek, Spock is known for saying “the needs of the many, outweigh the needs of the few, or the one”

    Later, when Kirk and crew risk their lives to save Spock, Kirk tells Spock “the needs of the one, outweigh the needs of the many”

    I would argue that sometimes, a friend’s need may outweigh the needs of a community or group. Depending on the harm caused. If this was a close friend of mine, I would talk to them and try to help them, and probably never chose to ruin their reputation, simply because I would care more about damaging my friend’s livelihood and reputation, than I would care about letting my neighbors know they’re hiring a mediocre contractor.

    But that’s just me.

  3. I think Jack’s method is the appropriate choice. First, we must accept we did not hire our DIY relative to perform the work, we hired a professional. Therefore, social relationships are irrelevant.

    I have contracted out both comnercial and residential construction work. What most people fail to do upfront is to establish objective measures for the GC and his subs to meet. Without written expectations as to quality, timing, and penalties for failing to meet expectations all opinions are subjective.

    The principal should address all concerns first with the contractor and evidence all that is agreed to in writing. If the contractor continues to fail to meet expectations you have an objective measure to make claims.

    Many homeowners, with little to no knowledge of construction often create issues that cause delays because they critique the subcontractor, demand changes without approved change orders, or otherwise alienate the sub.

    The construction contract is with the GC not the subs so all issues must flow through the GC. This case suggested the writer felt compelled to take over supervision which may or may not have been warranted. If the owner wanted to assume such control he or she should hire a project manager with construction experience who can identify sub standard work and has a working BS meter.

    Simply slamming a contractor on social media without identifying the objective metrics everyone agreed to and how they were not met is not protecting the greatest number.

  4. My take: he’s right if the first step by the inquirer is to confront the contractor with the truth. He has been botching jobs, and unless and until he addresses the problem, whatever it is, then not only will his services not be endorsed, his recent failures will have to be communicated to the community. The duty to warn extends to the contractor, and he ought to be given a chance to fix whatever is wrong before the inquirer begins dismantling his reputation.

    An interesting problem. I am reminded of ethical problems presented through Jewish ethical literature. For example toward that of marriage. If you have reason to believe that a woman or a man has problems, has committed crimes, or is otherwise unsuitable to be a spouse, you are obligated to reveal what you know to the one who is to marry or to their parents. The reason is because a marriage is one of the most important and consequential events in life. When it comes to such an important matter one’s responsibility overrides whatever merciful or compassionate sentiment you might have for the subject.

    It is similar in business or in this case that of recommending a contractor.

    But I would argue that even if it is one’s responsibility to tell a potential customer about that problem contractor, it is not necessarily the responsibility to advise the contractor first. Doing that might involve one in many different problems and might gain one an enemy that could do one harm.

    One could do this if one wanted though, and one might have no choice if it were a close friend or family member, but this is depending on the circumstances. But I think one might also be advised to do it anonymously: in a communication that was unsigned and delivered somehow.

    But that would not get one out of the duty and obligation to inform someone to be cautious when hiring such a contractor. It is not your right to stand by if there exists a possibility that another could be harmed.

  5. It is assumed, I thought, that he had already demonstrated unreliability in his original contract.

    Does he have an obligation to alert neighbors, through a community consumer referral website, that their neighbor’s work is now unreliable?

    He has an obligation first to the neighbor, to help the neighbor avoid a potential problem.

    That would be what I would hope my neighbor would do for me.

    His secondary obligation might be to help the contractor, if possible.

    • Ah, where do you draw a line then? What if they don’t do the work, or can’t/won’t refund thousands of dollars deposited because of some emergency? What if you have to hire someone else to fix the now leaking roof that was supposed to be fixed last spring and winter is close so another contractor will charge through the roof to get it done before winter?

      Nepotism may give an edge to get a job, other factors being equal, but at the end of the season the job must still be done. You have to draw a line when your family lives in the unrepaired house.

      Had a similar recommendation issue recently. A relative changed daily health aide agencies because of a friend’s recommendation, and on agreed handover, the new agency filled only one shift in the first five days. “We’re working on it” was not any comfort. There’s a lot of places and fields where recommendations may not be any better than flipping a coin.

      • If a contractor showed unreliability, was having alcohol or other problems, did not complete the work, and caused you to have to seek another contractor: all of this you would be obligated to bring to the attention of your neighbor who was considering using his services.

        Let us suppose that by the affected homeowner’s informing of his neighbor that this contractor, who had submitted a proposal to that neighbor, lost the potential job (building an addition let’s say), and let’s suppose that this caused that contractor to go toward bankruptcy, the break-up of his marriage, and any number of other problems. Of course the one who suffered first at the hands of this contractor would not and could not have known all that. But let’s suppose that somehow he did know. Still, he is obligated to tell his neighbor the truth about what the contractor did so that his neighbor could avoid potential problems.

        The question is only to what extent the first homeowner has an obligation to ‘help’ the contractor. By ‘help’ I mean informing the contractor that he can’t recommend him, or did not recommend him, and indeed recommended that his neighbor not use his services. Technically, that is ‘help’. Other help would be offering the man counsel or getting involved in listening to his problems and recommending solutions.

        Everything depends on the situation, and the character of both persons.

        • Yeah, you can cut anyone a break… like if something no one could expect delays. The problem is if you cut someone six months of break after break that are all individually reasonable. A siding thing got hit with the contractor’s divorce mess.

      • Marie
        If a contractor fails to meet contractual obligations after being given a reasonable opportunity to correct the issues then by all means express your displeasure publically. For those that take deposits and fail to perform some states have restitution funds paid into by licensed contractors. Seek help from the licensing board.

        Where you draw the line depends on where you would want the line drawn for you? I would say waiting a half a year to get a roof fixed is too long and blaming a contractor for higher costs because you failed to get it fixed earlier by a different roofer when the original failed to show is blame shifting.

        • Heh, that assumes you have the experience and knowledge to use a contract for this. Not always true, esp when it’s a friend. One parent never used them and the other didn’t now about them when they needed work. Excuses from the contractor as the job was 3rd tier priority. I’ve only learned these things the hard way in the last few years, not in school nor from any helpful kin. Taking advantage deserves censure. Calling it something weasily like ‘blame shifting’ does not remove or forgive the one who did not do the job. Being fooled is not unethical. Taking the money and task and not doing it is.

  6. Some quotes from the guidelines of nextdoor.com

    The crux of our Guidelines can be boiled down to one simple statement: Everyone here is your neighbor. Please treat each other with respect.

    On Nextdoor, we support local commerce. We encourage members to share helpful information about their favorite businesses and to buy, sell, and give things away to their neighbors.

    Nextdoor is not a platform for publicly shaming your neighbors. If you see a neighbor doing something that concerns you, ask yourself, “Do I know who this person is, and could I contact them privately to resolve the issue?” If the answer is yes, then you should contact them directly and not post about it on Nextdoor.

    Please note: Criticizing a service provider because of a bad commercial interaction does not constitute public shaming (even if a specific person is identified) as long as the post is civil, describes the person’s experience, and does not include libel or name calling.

  7. My take: he’s right if the first step by the inquirer is to confront the contractor with the truth. He has been botching jobs, and unless and until he addresses the problem, whatever it is, then not only will his services not be endorsed, his recent failures will have to be communicated to the community. The duty to warn extends to the contractor, and he ought to be given a chance to fix whatever is wrong before the inquirer begins dismantling his reputation.

    I’m reduced to saying “I agree”. That’s boring, so I’ll attach a rationale.

    Justice is a classical cardinal virtue pertaining to giving to each according to his due. It deals with rewarding elective good behaviors from which one profits, paying debts, and punishing wrongdoers. It’s the bare minimum; not doing any of these things is vice. Mercy, the classical theological virtue, expands upon and elevates justice. The idea of merely not punishing a criminal and calling it ‘mercy’ is a modern corruption of language and ideas. Mercy is fulfilled when, in addition to making proper restitutions, the wrongdoer is elevated in virtue. Mercy is a self-sacrificial act. It can be manifest in something like helping a vandal to repair damages while communicating the concepts pertaining to the rightful ownership of property. In this case, convincing the contractor to put down the bottle, repair past shoddy work pro bono, and live up to his obligations requires more effort than simply registering a complaint. Mercy is sometimes beyond our reach. The contractor has to be willing to make things right. If he isn’t, we can only achieve the minimum good.

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