The Ethical Dilemma: How Far Should Compassion Extend When Running a Business?

Joan Reisman-Brill gives advice to a B&B owner who can’t decide whether to return a deposit or not, and an atheist whose Jewish wife’s celebration of Yom Kippur drives him up the wall.   

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Yom Kippur Conniption: My spouse’s family is Jewish, everyone knows I’m a non-believer, and we just got through another High Holy Days endurance marathon. Every year it’s the same: There is incredible pressure leading up to the holidays, with who is coming and where they will sleep and getting the meals together and dragging unwilling children to the synagogue. The peak of peevishness comes on the eve of Yom Kippur, when everyone gets stuck in traffic trying to make it to the pre-fast feast, which must conclude before sundown. Inevitably, someone (ok, it’s often us) is late so everybody waits, then there’s no time to eat and/or everyone misses the beginning of the service (which I’m told is the most important part). Everybody is incredibly crabby until the next meal more than 24 hours later. The 85-year-old matriarch, who insists on not even taking a sip of water even though she’s entitled to be excused for health reasons, is the worst of all.

I have tried to tell everyone to relax, the world will not end nor will they be left out of the Book of Life if they are still chowing down a half hour after sundown or miss the first minutes of the prayers, but suggestions coming from me are not appreciated, to put it mildly.

Although this is supposed to be a time of reflection, atonement, and generosity (all fine in theory), this otherwise lovely family is nasty to each other or any unfortunate soul who ventures near. What’s up with this, and what can I do—other than hide?

—Fast Way Too Slow

Dear Fast,

It’s not just them. I knew an Italian Catholic matriarch who every single year was short one of the seven fish dishes she was supposed to serve for Christmas Eve dinner, which left her sobbing through the bountiful feast she’d slaved over. A friend says her devout father was always in uncharacteristically bad humor every Sunday after church.

A psychologist could probably elucidate how all the feelings of obligation and tradition and guilt—exacerbated by the eternal and divine dimensions—conspire to make good religious people turn into bad company at precisely the times they should be experiencing serenity or forgiveness or joy. When these fine people fall short of the ideal they are trying to achieve or fail to control the situation, they become frustrated and furious.

I suspect these dynamics have been repeating for generations in families across the entire spectrum of religions and cultures. Unfortunately, your assurances—that what they believe matters doesn’t truly matter—work as well as pouring water on an oil fire. So while you must have your reasons for joining in the fun year after year, I suggest in the future you either excuse yourself or do whatever you can to get everyone where they’re supposed to be on time. Then enjoy the fact that the one person who is calm and pleasant—and possibly even managing to have a nice time—is the nonbeliever.


When Is Compassion Good Business? My spouse and I run a bed and breakfast. We work very hard and frugally, and we earn a living for ourselves and our small staff, but with little to spare.

In 2011, a guest pre-paid $800 for a one-day whole-house rental for a family reunion. Three days before, he called to say his son had been involved in a terrible accident and they were cancelling. He was clearly distressed so I didn’t keep him on the line to discuss his payment, but I think both he and we expected the event would be rescheduled. 

Today, two years later, he e-mailed to say they are still dealing with things related to the accident and see no way to use the $800 credit. Due to financial pressures and medical bills, they are wondering if we would consider refunding it.

This is their first communication since that distress call in November 2011. I don’t suspect any kind of scam or dishonesty on their part, but I wish the questions were about some nominal amount that we could comfortably afford to refund. To complicate matters, my spouse at first considered a partial refund but now feels that’s inappropriate and we should send nothing—leaving me knowing that no matter what I do, someone is going to be really upset with me. Ethically, how should we handle this?

—Any Interest in Interest?

Dear Interest,

Since you don’t mention anything about your contract, it seems you are wondering about the “right” thing to do, as opposed to your professional obligation. Professionally, you don’t owe these people anything based on your own or customary hospitality industry cancellation policies and time limits. And while you might have turned away other guests after the entire house was reserved, with just three days’ notice, you probably were not able to book a houseful of new guests after that reservation fell through. While a partial refund may have been appropriate immediately after the cancellation was called in (if your policy does not stipulate otherwise), providing any refund or credit so long afterwards would be gratuitous.

But clearly, you’d like to find a way to be kind in light of their misfortune, and that’s a wonderful thing. So here’s a way: Even if the house was completely unoccupied, you were spared the cost and labor you would have spent on making beds and breakfasts (as well as cleaning, attending to the guests’ needs, paying for their water and electric usage, etc.). Perhaps you (and your spouse) would feel comfortable refunding that portion of the money, and even letting them know that the rest of the credit is still available should they find an opportunity to use it within another year or two. Or you could simply continue the offer of the full $800 credit with an extended but specific expiration date (like November 2015), even though right now they seem unlikely to take advantage it. They could surprise you with a reunion next year, or decide to use the credit as a gift for a friend.

The fact is, as kind and compassionate as you long to be and as sad as their story is, you are in business to provide a living for yourself and your employees, and maybe even turn a profit. You may feel better by being generous within reason, but don’t turn your guests’ misfortune into your own. And most importantly, don’t attempt to appease these guests (who will probably not be happy with anything less than a full refund, which is beyond reasonable) at the expense of your relationship with your partner/spouse and the health of your business.

Joan Reisman-Brill is a writer based in New York City and certified Humanist Celebrant. She received her BA in English literature from the University of Chicago, an MA also in English lit from the University of Michigan, and an MBA in management and marketing from New York University. She has worked in public relations, marketing and myriad facets of writing and editing for nearly four decades. She has been steadily increasingly her humanist identification and activism at an accelerating rate, and while she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, she welcomes this opportunity to tackle the questions.