Sunday, August 12, 2018

Remembering a lost friend with a troubling story


A recent obituary troubled a reader. The kind remembrances of a colorful local resident were testament to the large imprint the person had left on her community.

But it was a detail in one remembrance, however, that troubled a reader. Apparently, when the deceased chaired the board of a local nonprofit, she and her executive director found themselves up against a ridiculously tight deadline to finish an application for a grant.

They began work at the beginning of the week, hoping to get the materials completed and to the post office so they could get it postmarked by that Friday, as the grant-making organization required. But as the week progressed and Friday arrived, it became clear they weren't going to finish on time and would miss the postmark deadline.

After the executive director told his board chair they wouldn't finish on time, she left the office. Shortly later, she returned and showed him that she had gotten a Pitney Bowes sticker from the post office, which was postmarked Friday.

He told the obituary writer that the board chair was his "type of girl" and that a town where you could get the post office to issue an "illegal" postmark was his "type of town."

A funny story about a beloved friend and community member; undoubtedly, she went out of her way to help her friends and colleagues.

But the reader wondered if such behavior is really the kind of thing that should be condoned, let alone heralded. Granted, it did enable them to get their grant proposal out with the illusion of being on time (even though it was sent out the following Monday) so they could get the grant.

"I'm sure the woman was well-known in town and used her connections to pull some strings," the reader writes. Others likely could not do the same, she observes, but that's not what really bothers her.

"Making light of breaking the law to get what you want doesn't seem right," she writes.

There is nothing wrong with the executive director telling the story as a way to remember an old friend. If it's something that happened between them and he thought it a good anecdote to use to show how they worked together to advance their cause, then his choice was fine, and likely amusing to hear for those who knew her.

What's unclear to my reader -- and to me -- is whether the writer of the obituary checked the facts of the executive director's story to make sure it really happened as he told the obituary writer. Occasionally, old stories take on details that might not have happened exactly as they remembered decades later when reminiscing over a dear, old friend.

Was it right to try to fabricate the postmark to make it look like the package went out before it did -- if that is indeed what happened? No. The right thing would have been to work as hard as they could and try to meet the deadline set by the granting institution. If they missed it, then they could commiserate with others who missed it as well and didn't have a malleable post office worker to enlist for help. 

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 www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

(c) 2018 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.


Sunday, August 05, 2018

Should I lie to keep a surprise?


"I don't like to lie," C.E., a reader from Southeastern United States, tells me. It would be refreshing to believe that she is in good company.

Typically, C.E. doesn't find herself in a position of even being tempted to lie, she says. But that recently changed.

Some members of her family decided to throw a surprise birthday party for one of her close relatives. Knowing that C.E. and the recipient of the surprise party were close, C.E. was enlisted to help with the planning and with the effort to keep the soiree a tightly guarded secret.

"She and I talk regularly," C.E. says about her relative. While they live in different parts of the country, they also visit one another during the summer, just around the time the party was planned to take place.

"I don't want to ruin the surprise," C.E. says, but she also doesn't want to lie to keep the surprise element in place.

But, she wants to know, if it would be wrong to lie if she had to in this particular instance, or if it would be better to spill the beans on the surprise rather than lie about it.

C.E.'s is likely a situation many of us find ourselves in from time to time. Lying might seem like the only route to take to do something perceived to be nice for someone else. Justifying that a small lie might do no harm seems easy enough.

I'm not convinced C.E.'s only choices are to lie or to spoil the secret.

Years ago, Rushworth M. Kidder, the late co-founder of the Institute for Global Ethics, told me about some advice he offered in a different situation where trying to decide how to keep a secret without lying proved challenging.

"You have to come to terms with how to approach issues like this where you can't divulge all of the information, but to do it without lying," Kidder told me. He went on to tell me about a woman he knew who once told him how she handled such situations: "I really find that I don't ever have to lie; I have too big a vocabulary."

When keeping a confidence of any sort -- whether it's about an upcoming surprise party or upcoming layoffs about which only you and a few other managers might know -- lying should not be the go-to tactic. Instead, choosing responses to questions carefully and honestly without revealing more than you want to seems the right thing to do.

Of course, if C.E.'s relative comes right out and asks, "Are you having a surprise party for me?" that puts her in a quandary. If she says, "No," she'll know she's lying. If she says, "Yes," she'll spoil the secret. If she simultaneously wants to maintain her honesty and the element of surprise, the right thing is to change the subject as deftly as possible and move on.

Keeping a surprise party a secret from the honoree is always a challenge. But once C.E. decided she doesn't want to lie, her choice was made and she needs to find a way to stay true to her conviction. Or she could just avoid as many of her relative's calls as possible until the day of the party. 

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 www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

(c) 2018 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.


Remembering a lost friend with a troubling story

A recent obituary troubled a reader. The kind remembrances of a colorful local resident were testament to the large imprint the person h...