Sunday, December 14, 2014

When a company's ethics violate your own, take your business elsewhere

If you sour on the company but still care about some of its employees and value the service they provide, should you stay or should you go?

About two years ago, S.W.'s locally-owned bank in the Midwest was acquired by a much larger bank. Upon completion of the acquisition, the local bank's CEO received a golden parachute payment of roughly $18 million.

"I have no problem with this in theory," writes S.W., since "such payments are designed to assure the CEOs focus on their fiduciary responsibility to shareholders" during an acquisition. S.W. believes it's only fair that if the sale of a company increases shareholder value but results in the acquired company's CEO losing his or her job, "there should be some incentive for the CEO to proceed with the acquisition even if it comes at the expense of losing his or her job."

However, in the case of S.W.'s locally-owned bank, the CEO who pocketed the $18 million was given the top job at the acquiring bank -- and kept the golden parachute payment.

"He won twice," writes S.W. "I regard this as unethical and profligate. Neither behavior deserves my continuing patronage."

But S.W. has a dilemma. The two local bankers with whom he does most of his commercial and personal business remained with the merged bank and he likes working with both of them.

"They continue to treat me very well, though they are hampered by new policies and procedures," he writes. "I feel loyalty toward them individually but not towards their employer, the new bank."

S.W. has shared his feelings with the two bankers, who've told him that the issue of the CEO's golden parachute has been raised by many other customers, as well. Aside from keeping their jobs, the two bankers received no financial benefit from the acquisition.

"They feel my pain," writes S.W.

He's told both bankers that this issue continues to gnaw at him and might compel him to leave the bank. If he does so, however, he worries that his action would be disproportionately felt by his local bankers since he suspects their compensation is based in part on maintaining a quote of customers.

"Do I stay or do I go?" he asks.

While S.W.'s sense of loyalty to these two bankers is admirable, if he truly believes that the management of his bank behaved unethically and that the golden parachute payout to a CEO who kept his job at the merged bank represents profligate behavior, the right thing is to shop around for a new bank.

There are likely good employees at many companies whose values don't mirror those of customers. If these values are so abhorrent that S.W. doesn't want to reward the bank with his business, he should move on.

In his book Integrity (Basic Books, 1996), Stephen Carter argues that showing integrity requires three steps: discernment of the issue, action based on that discernment, and then articulation of that action. If S.W. wants to leave with integrity, the right thing is for him to let the bank's management know precisely why he's leaving and then to take his business elsewhere. 

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Sunday, December 07, 2014

How much should you spend to keep a pet alive?

C.K., a reader from Madison, Wis., writes that she loves her dog and cats, each of which has been "a source of great comfort and love" for her and her family. Now, however, her pets are growing old and she wonders how to decide when it's time to "let them die in peace or put them to sleep."

"Technically," C.K. writes, "our veterinarian can give us many medical supplies that will help them stay alive for a few more years. Unfortunately, these items also cost a great deal of money. How do we take care of our pets without wiping out our savings? Where do we draw the line without betraying (them)?"

Choosing when it's time to euthanize a pet can be harrowing. The American Humane Association provides some useful advice on deciding when a pet's quality of life has diminished enough that the time has come. The first step, according to the AHA, is to consult your pet's veterinarian, who can help assess the situation.

Writing on the website, Dr. Andy Roark, a South Carolina veterinarian, advises to make a list of the top five things your pet loves to do. If the animal "can no longer do three or more of them, quality of life has been impacted to a level where many veterinarians would recommend euthanasia."

But C.K.'s question goes beyond diminished quality of life issues. She seems to want to know what the right thing to do is when it's possible to provide medical care for an aging pet whose quality of life remains good, but the cost of keeping the pet alive presents a financial hardship for the owner(s).

When you adopt a pet, you do take on a financial commitment that includes day-to-day feeding, toys and accessories, and health care that can lead to sizeable veterinary bills. No one should be expected to be bankrupted to care for a pet, but ownership requires a clear sense of the costs involved.

There are agencies, such as the Fuzzy Pet Foundation, a Southern California nonprofit founded by Sheila Choi (a former student of mine), dedicated to rescuing pets that have been abandoned by their owners.

But C.K. doesn't want to abandon the pets she loves. The right thing for pet owners to do when facing financial hardship over veterinary bills is to seek assistance. Animal shelters and veterinary schools in some areas provide low-cost care. The Humane Society of America offers a list of national and state organizations (including those in Wisconsin) that can provide financial assistance. RedRover also has links to resources in the U.S. and Canada that provide emergency assistance to pet owners.

When an owner brings a pet into his or her family, the right thing to do is to care for the pet throughout its life, work closely with a vet to address the pet's quality of life issues, and, if necessary, seek help from agencies that exist to provide emergency support for pets and owners in need. 

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Sunday, November 30, 2014

As textbook prices climb, re-selling review copies seems suspect

Instructors on college campuses often request review copies of textbooks from publishers. The idea behind this is to give instructors a chance to consider several different texts to find the best fit for the course he or she is going to teach.

But sometimes, instructors who request such review copies have no intention of using them for courses.

A faculty member at a Southern college writes that faculty at his school "openly" sell the textbooks they receive as review copies for a tidy profit to used book buyers who prowl the campus.

"Some of these books are ordered and never opened," he writes, "which leads me to suspect that it's part of a scheme that defrauds textbook publishers and possibly drives up the cost of publishing textbooks."

Still, the faculty member wonders if being able to buy such re-sold review copies online at a significant discount might partially address how overwhelmed many college students are by the hidden costs of higher education, such as textbooks.

"Isn't this actually an altruistic, ethical practice on the part of their instructors?" he asks. "Or should we be concerned instead that this is a fraudulent practice by those instructors, who should know they are modeling a deceptive behavior to their students?"

Adding to the issue, the faculty member writes is that occasionally publishers will promote textbooks by mailing copies to whole departments.

"Are faculty obligated to return these unsolicited books when it's more convenient (and profitable) to just sell them to buyers?" he asks.

About five years ago, I posed a question on the blog for this column asking readers whether it was OK for a professor to sell a copy of a textbook he or she had received as a free review copy. It turned out to be among the top-read blog posts ever. Perhaps the issue hits a nerve because college costs are so high and textbook prices can be staggering.

If an instructor requests a review copy of a text for possible use in a course, but he or she has no intention of using the book for that course, that's deceptive and wrong. If, in requesting a review copy of a book, an instructor agrees with the publisher that he or she will not re-sell the book, then the right thing is to honor that commitment.

If, however, books are sent to an instructor unsolicited by a publisher, and no agreement is made not to re-sell them, then technically, the department members may be within their right to do what they want with the texts.

It would seem that a forward-thinking department might find a way to use any proceeds from the sale of review copies books to help defray the costs of textbooks for their students.

Even if the textbooks referred to in the reader's questions are not being used for classes, if a pool were created in which any proceeds could be deposited, those funds might be used to subsidize the cost of textbooks actually required for courses.

The right thing, however, is not to behave fraudulently and misrepresent the true reason for requesting a review copy. If an instructor has no intention of considering a book for use in class and instead simply plans to re-sell the copy, it's wrong. 

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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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