Sunday, September 17, 2017

Don't let the personal get in the way of the bigger picture



What ethical issues concern people the most?

This September marks the 19th year I've been writing "The Right Thing" column. What began as a monthly business ethicscolumn grew into a weekly general ethics column that is published in newspapers in the United States and Canada. Now, as I write what is column number 765, and it heads into its 20th year, it seems a good time to occasionally look back to try to make some sense of the ethical issues that concern readers the most.

While I've written about corporate malfeasance, lying executives and presidents, philandering CEOs, misguided values statements, overtaxed employees, petty theft, contested inheritances, uncivil political campaigns, cheating professional athletes, and roughly 700 other topics, the ones that garner the most attention are not what I would have expected.

Once the column has runs in the publications, which subscribe to it from the Tribune Content Agency, I post it to the column's blog. I've done this for almost 11 of the 19 years of the column's life. Among other things, the blog analytics allow me to see which columns are viewed the most. (It also allows me to see the column has a far larger readership from The Netherlands than I'd ever expect.)

Rather than large social issues involving politics, business or promiscuous scalawags, the most viewed column over the past 11 years was published in January 2006. The topic? Panhandlers who pick returnable cans and bottles from their neighbors' curbside recycling bins. It had almost twice as many views as the second most-viewed column, which was published in May 2016, and explored what a prospective employee should do when an interviewer tells her that the person she'd be reporting to is "mean." Close on the heels of mean bosses (or inappropriate interviewers, depending on how you view it) was a March 2013 column about cellphone customer service operators insisting they couldn't help when ultimately it turned out they could.

It's the day-to-day ethical challenges we face that seem to interest us most. That's not to say that we're not concerned with the larger world around us, but who among us hasn't spent hours on the telephone trying to resolve a cellphone or cable television or internet service provider issue and come away feeling like it was the end of the world as we know it? These are not world shattering issues, but they are those that seem to consume us day in and day out. They too often are the issues that get in the way of us being able to address larger global issues such as war, famine and social injustices.

The right thing perhaps is to keep perspective. While we might be drawn to stories of recyclable cans, bad customer service and inappropriate job interviewers, we shouldn't allow these day-to-day issues to get in the way of doing what we can do to live an honest life and leave the world a bit of a better place than when we entered it. 

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) 2017 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Is it OK to use stuff we didn't pay for?



Is it ever OK to get what you don't pay for?

L.H., a reader from Massachusetts, subscribes to basic cable television service from one of his local providers. "I'm not a big TV watcher," he writes, "but I like to be able to watch news and sports channels on occasion that are available through my cable subscription." He notes that he doesn't pay for any premium channels or extras in an effort to keep his bill as low as possible.

A neighbor recently told L.H. that he had been able to watch some premium cable channels without having to pay for them. "A glitch in the system, apparently," writes L.H. Upon learning of this news from his neighbor, L.H. figured he would give it a try and soon he too was regularly watching shows and movies on the premium channel without paying for them. "I know I wasn't being charged," he writes, "because the little button you have to press to buy the show or subscribe to the channel never showed up on my screen."

For several weeks, L.H. continued to watch the premium channel. (It turns out he might be more of a TV watcher than he lets on.) But he indicates that he knows he's getting something for nothing and wonders if it's wrong to take advantage of what appears to be a glitch that allows non-premium subscribers to tune in for free.

"Eventually, I suspect the glitch will be fixed," he writes, "but in the meantime is it wrong for me to tune in when I know I haven't paid for the service?"

Given that premium cable channels sometimes offer free trials by making the shows they regularly charge for free to all comers, L.H. might not be getting something for nothing as he suspects he is. But suppose it's not a free trial and simply an error that lets viewers get free access? Is it wrong to take advantage?

It's a question that could apply to several situations. Suppose, for example, everyone at work knows there's a vending machine that dispenses two soft drinks every time someone pays for just one?

The responsibility is ultimately on the cable television provider to make sure that its system works so that subscribers get what they paid for and are charged for extras when appropriate. If L.H. wants to do the right thing, it would be to check with his cable service provider to see if the premium channel is running a special offer that allows him to check in. He might also check his bill to make sure he hadn't inadvertently signed up for something he didn't want.

The same goes for the soft drink machine. A quick call to the service phone number on the machine to alert the vendor that its machine is dispensing multiple drinks for the price of one would be the right thing to do.

Once L.H. alerts the company, it's up to it to fix the system if it's broken. Cable service might strike L.H. and others as already too high for even the most basic of services. But the option exists to cancel any service that seems too expensive. Knowing the you're wrongly receiving services for free might feel like a windfall, but it's still taking advantage of a mistake to get something that isn't rightfully yours. 

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) 2017 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.


Don't let the personal get in the way of the bigger picture

What ethical issues concern people the most? This September marks the 19th year I've been writing "The Right Thing" c...