When to Drop Charges

Randy Cohen
Posted: Sep 25, 2008 12:01 AM
When to Drop Charges

I work as a consultant out of my home, doing a variety of research, writing and editing tasks for five or six clients at a time. Much of what I do for one client also helps me with others, since the topics are in the same domain. If I spend a day researching something for Client A and can use the same information for Client B, may I charge both of them the consulting fee? -- Nancy V. Yinger, Oakton, Va.

You may. It's fine -- and all but inevitable -- to apply information gleaned while working for Client A to your work for Client B (excluding any proprietary information, of course). And it's fine to charge each client a consulting fee for, well, consulting. The client is paying for your expertise. How you acquire it is neither here nor there. Someone good at her job is apt to learn more with experience, a fine thing.

What you may not do is bill the same hour multiple times: One hour of work earns you one hour of pay. It would be more accurate and more honest to prorate an hour of research among several clients if it contributes to your work for all or to charge each client a flat fee. And it would be prudent to explain your billing system when you accept a job.

In a post-Newtonian world, it is tempting to bill the same hour's work to dozens of clients, enabling you to work 25 hours in a magical, Einsteinian day -- or 28 hours or a million. And when you finish the job and return to Earth, you'll find that you're younger than when you set out. And blonder. I don't understand how it works -- I think you have to do research at the speed of light -- I'm just glad it does.

I sit on the board of an international youth organization. Our drug-and-alcohol policy is up for review, and we are considering, in addition to measures we already take when youth participants consume banned substances at our programs, informing the participant's school of the transgression. May we pass along this information? -- E.Z., New York

You should not pass it along. To do so invites a kind of double jeopardy. Having already punished a young person for misbehaving, you invite his or her school to put the boot in, too. It's hard to see why this is any of their business, yet some schools will no doubt punish a student even for actions taken off school premises and outside of school hours.

You have an obligation to your young participants (and their parents) to provide a safe and lawful environment. To do that, you may ban illegal drugs and alcohol at your events and expel those who flout your rules. But to best protect -- and assist -- those participants, you would do well to distinguish among the various transgressions you might encounter.

A 19-year-old drinking a beer or two at a party is unlikely to have a health problem. In many countries, he or she would not have even a legal problem. (Buy that beer in Detroit, you flirt with crime; cross the Ambassador Bridge and buy it in Windsor, Ontario, you're in the clear.) But a drug-addled 10-year-old very likely does have a health problem, one that requires not punishment but help, something best overseen by parents and not assistant principals (and certainly not the police).

UPDATE: The board voted not to report violations to a transgressor's school except as required by law.

(Readers can direct their questions and comments by e-mail to ethicist@nytimes.com. This column originates in The New York Times Magazine.)