Sunday, November 23, 2014

Share your own stories of good deeds -- and missed opportunities to do the right thing

A tragic story hit the news waves in Boston last week. A woman who'd apparently been texting on the subway platform while waiting for a train was struck and killed by the train. As some passengers rushed to see what had happened, the spotted her cell phone, clad in its orange case, on the platform.

Shortly after, local television newscasts began running video footage of a man placing his foot on top of the woman's phone. He pauses, looks around, then leans down to pick up the phone. A subway police officer interviewed in the video describes the man's behavior as "reprehensible."

A day after the footage ran, the man turned himself (and the phone) in and was charged with stealing the victim's cell phone. He was released on personal recognize after his lawyer insisted there was "no criminal intent" in his actions. As the woman's family mourns her death, the young man awaits trial.

While character may be what psychiatrist Robert Coles described in The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination (Houghton Mifflin, 1989) as, "how you behave when no one is looking," the incident on the subway platform suggests that the instances when no one is looking are growing fewer.

On the same day the offender appeared in court, The Metro Independent, an online newspaper in Collinsville, Ill., ran a storyspotlighting the Collinsville High School Character Education Students of the Month. One honoree was cited because he'd found a lost cell phone at his school and turned it in to the school office. The story singled out the young man because while "several students have discovered their phones were misplaced ... few have been returned to their owners."

The student was not alone in his honesty. A fellow CHS pupil was honored because after learning about a stolen cell phone, "he searched for, found, and returned" it after spotting the device in his classroom. Still another student found $2 in the school cafeteria. Rather than pocket what might have seemed a trivial amount, she turned the money in to a CHS staff member.

The actions of these three students stand in stark contrast to the alleged actions of the young man on the Boston subway platform.

Of course, not all examples of young people doing the right thing are limited to Collinsville, Ill. I'd like to hear your stories.

Was there a time in your past when you chose to do the right thing regardless of whether you got credit for your actions? Have there been moments when you could have done the right thing and still regret not doing so?

In the past, when I've asked readers to share their stories, the response has offered a wonderful window into the types of ethical decisions people face every day. Provide as much detail as possible, but please keep your submission to no more than 300 words. I will run some of these stories in an upcoming column. Include your name, address and telephone number, and submit your story to 

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

You can establish a fair gift policy without laying an egg

Reader JLK, a teacher at a small regional public university, is wrestling with eggs.

Many of his students are older or non-traditional students who commute rather than live on campus. Many did not enroll in college right after completing high school. Some travel from rural communities, including farms.

One "very high-achieving" student is a 50-something mother who raises chickens and other animals and grows fruits and vegetables, some of which she shares with friends and neighbors. She recently began bringing cartons of eggs to campus to give to her professors. Her first intended recipient declined the gift and told JLK he was concerned that it would be unethical for him to accept such gifts from a student in his class.

"The eggs wound up in a shared refrigerator in the department's break room, with a note atop the carton that they were free to any takers," writes JLK. Another three dozen eggs have appeared since, JLK writes, all in cartons, all marked in the same way.

"The student has told her professors she simply has too many eggs and must give them away," writes JLK. The student's work is "top-notch," he writes, "so it doesn't appear she's trying to buy a better grade."

JLK wants to know what's so unethical about accepting a perishable gift such as farm-fresh eggs from a student who appears to have no ulterior motive.

There's nothing wrong with accepting perishable gifts if the policy is consistent and made clear to all students and faculty. There's a difference between accepting a carton of eggs and a truckload full of chickens, so if gifts, perishable or otherwise, are permitted, then it should be made clear what kinds of gifts are allowed and how much is permitted.

Setting such parameters can be a challenge. At some point, some might argue that it's just quibbling when it comes to deciding what value of gift is acceptable.

What's also challenging is to decide which students can give gifts and which can't. JLK seems to suggest that because the egg giver is an exemplary student, she stands to gain nothing from giving such gifts to her teachers. Does this mean that sub-par students should be forbidden from giving gifts because they stand to gain? That hardly seems right, nor enforceable, given how quickly some students can go from performing well to performing not so well in class.

A more consistent approach would simply be for teachers to not take gifts from students currently enrolled in their classes. Setting such a policy erases any doubts about whether or not a gift influenced a grade.

Ultimately, the right thing is for the faculty to be consistent and clear about whether gifts of any kind from students to teachers are acceptable. If the egg giver "simply has too many eggs," many of her fellow students might be willing to take them off her hands! 

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Sunday, November 09, 2014

Noble offer to repair damaged laptop backfires

Several weeks ago, H.T., a reader from New England, arrived at her gym and "created a disaster."

The gym is a large open space. On one side is a common area for members with a large table and cubicles for gym members to store their belongings. When H.T. was walking over to put her things in a cubicle, she bumped into the table, causing a full water bottle with no cap to tip over. The water pooled under the bottle owner's laptop, which was also sitting on the table.

H.T. quickly lifted the laptop off the table and shouted, "Whose laptop is this?" The owner ran over. H.T. writes that she apologized "profusely" and told the owner that if she'd "messed up" the laptop she'd do whatever she could to get it fixed.

The next day, H.T. received an email from the laptop owner indicating that a computer store had quoted $170 to retrieve the data from the computer, plus another $1,200 to either repair the old laptop or replace it with a new one.

"In my wildest dreams, I never expected my offer to fix the situation would leave me with a bill of well over $1,000," H.T. writes. "Maybe I'm naive, but I thought maybe a couple hundred dollars (for repairs)." While H.T. was still willing to cover the data recovery costs, she stressed that it was the owner's responsibility to keep her personal belongings safe.

"An unattended laptop in a public space with an open water bottle beside it is an accident waiting to happen." Therefore, H.T. doesn't believe she should be financial responsible for buying the owner a new computer.

"Am I right?" she asks.

H.T. is right that the owner was irresponsible for not taking better care of her laptop. It's great that users trust fellow gym members enough to leave their laptops unattended, but leaving an opened water bottle next to her laptop was careless and the owner could have been held responsible for any damage that resulted.

Except, of course, that the person who nudged the table offered to accept responsibility for the damage. The right thing to do is for H.T. to honor her commitment. However, she shouldn't do so without first getting some kind of proof from the laptop owner that the machine needed to be replaced. H.T. should not take the owner's word for it that a new laptop was the only solution.

It's also perfectly reasonable for H.T. to be honest with the laptop owner and tell her she had no idea the repair costs would be so high, and see if the owner would be willing to let H.T. pay for the data retrieval only.

While it was noble of H.T. to offer to make things right once the damage was done -- when she could have easily turned a blind eye and walked away from the spill -- it would have been equally fine for her to set a limit on how much she was willing to help. 

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Sunday, November 02, 2014

Lawyer deserves payment for services rendered

How far should you go to get money owed you? A California lawyer is grappling with just this issue. A client was chronically slow to pay, the lawyer writes, but until a court ruling went against her, she was always appreciative of the lawyer's work.

Recently, however, the client wrote the lawyer a check that the bank tagged as NSF (non-sufficient funds). The client "made it clear she finds my services unworthy of payment," writes the lawyer. Going forward, another lawyer will represent the client.

This client had never protested any previous bills, the lawyer noted.

"I made no legal or professional errors whatsoever," she recalled. The lawyer further pointed out that she had 30 years of experience and was honest to the point of having been called a "saint" who was "too ethical to practice law."

Since she's been replaced on this case, the lawyer says she "must decide if I should seek remedies for the NSF check."

If the client felt the lawyer was not doing a good job, she should have replaced her earlier. Perhaps she had been satisfied until the undesirable ruling caused her to doubt her lawyer's performance. Even if that's the case -- though there's no clear indication of this -- the client should not have intentionally written a bad check.

So, what is the right thing for the lawyer to do? Should she go after the money she's owed? Of course, she should. Whether or how soon she'll recoup the payment is another question, but she should not let the matter lie.

Any time we hire a professional to provide services for us, we have every right to question whether or not those services were delivered satisfactorily. If we hire a contractor to install new windows and find that the windows don't open correctly, for example, it's perfectly reasonable to withhold payment and demand that the contractor do the job correctly. What's not OK is to deem the work unacceptable, then write a bad check to signal our displeasure.

In this case, there's no indication that the client received anything but responsible and professional representation. The client never took issue with anything and, while she paid slowly, she did cover her bills. To suggest to her lawyer now that she wrote the bad check to indicate she was dissatisfied is simply wrong.

The right thing for the lawyer to do is seek whatever remedies she must to compel her former client to pay. Fortunately, she happens to know a good lawyer who can help her! 

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